How to tell if a wound is healing or infected: 9 signs to look out for


The human body begins to heal itself right after a cut, injury, or surgery.

Sometimes, a wound becomes infected owing to germs or bacteria. As healthcare providers, it is essential to recognize telltale signs and symptoms of infection for quick intervention. If not, it can swiftly spread to other parts of the body or turn chronic due to lack of attention. An essential part of effective patient care is understanding how to address and monitor injuries, surgical cuts, and accidental wounds.

How to recognize a wound infection

When a cut or injury becomes infected, it begins to look peculiar along with a prolonged healing period. To prevent the infection from becoming serious, healthcare professionals must lookout for signs and symptoms.

Signs of wound infection

  • Pus: Medical professionals manage healthy drainage with regular dressings. But cloudy, yellow-ish drainage or purulent discharge with a pungent or foul odor accompanied with swelling and elevated pain is a sign of an infected wound.
  • Pimple: When a pimple-like crust forms on an injury, it indicates an infection. This pimple increases in size over time.
  • Soft Scab: While it is normal to have slightly pink or reddish skin around the injury, a scab that constantly increases in size over time could indicate an infection.
  • Red Area: In the initial stages, wounds appear red due to the natural healing process. But if the red area around the injured site continues to increase even after 4-5 days of an injury, it is a telltale sign of an infected wound..
  • Red Streak: If a red streak starts forming from the injured site towards the heart, it could be lymphangitis (inflammation of the lymphatic system). This underlying infection requires immediate medical attention.
  • More Pain: Normally, the pain subsides a few days after an injury or wound. Long-lasting or elevated pain even after a few days is a symptom of an infected site.
  • More Swelling: Similar to redness around the wound, swelling in the affected area indicates that the body’s immune system is working. But if the swelling continues even after 3-5 days, with no signs of it reducing, it indicates an infection.
  • Swollen Node: Generally, swollen lymph nodes indicate that a body’s immune system is fighting an illness. But the formation of a large and tender node near the injured site could be a sign of an infected wound.
  • Fever: After an injury or surgery, it is normal for a patient to run a low-grade fever. However, persistent high-grade fever coupled with decreased appetite and body ache is a sign of infection.

Signs of wound healing

Grazes, injuries, or surgical cuts go through four medical stages of healing – hemostasis, inflammatory, proliferation, and maturation. The following are the signs that point out to a wound healing:

  • Bleeding or Scabbing: Any injury (barring burns and pressure ulcers) or wound goes through the initial stages of bleeding, clotting, and scabbing. For instance, an injury initially bleeds, begins to clot after a few minutes, and then scabs as the blood dries.
  • Swelling: Swelling occurs immediately after a scab is formed. It indicates that the body is naturally healing and repairing an injured area. The site appears to be slightly red or pink – indicating sufficient blood supply.
  • Growth of New Tissues: After the swelling stops, the body repairs the blood vessels and replaces damaged tissue. As time passes, the skin pulls the wound edges inwards. Thereafter, new tissues are formed.
  • Scarring: Minor injuries leave no scars, but deep wounds leave scars that take long to heal and are often accompanied by itching. Sometimes, it can take up to 2 years for an injury to completely heal.

What are the risk factors for infection?

Caring for any wound is an essential part of being a healthcare professional. 

According to statistics, more than 6.5 million Americans have chronic injuries. Some of the most common factors for non-healing wounds are:

  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Hypertension
  • Poor blood circulation
  • Weakened immune system
  • Advancing age
  • Vascular disease
  • Chronic wound

How can I prevent wound infection?

Accidental injuries, small grazes, or surgical cuts need utmost attention and care to prevent infection. Cleaning and protecting the injured area while keeping it free of any contamination is necessary. Deeper and larger wounds need extra care and monitoring and do not heal overnight.

Preventing infection in surgical wounds

Surgical site cuts need medical attention and care from a specialist. If infected, healthcare professionals use a combination of treatment plans such as re-cleaning the wound, antibiotics, and constant monitoring. 

To prevent surgical site infections, some of the steps undertaken include:

  • Thorough hand washing before and after surgery.
  • Cleaning the incision area with an antiseptic. 
  • Sterilizing clothes of doctors, nurses, and support staff.
  • Carefully using antibiotics.
  • Controlling the body temperature of the patient during surgery.
  • Managing blood sugar levels of the patient.
  • Properly removing or clipping hair of the patient from the surgical site before the surgery.
  • Monitoring and caring for the wound.

Preventing infection in wounds from injury

People with large wounds, burns, or accidental injuries need medical attention. Additionally, those with snake bites or cuts due to rusty and dirty objects are at higher risk. Depending on the severity of the condition, doctors recommend a tetanus shot or an antibiotic injection followed by strict monitoring.

For small or large cuts or injuries, basic steps are essential: 

  • Cleaning the wound with running water immediately after the injury. 
  • Allowing the skin around it to dry.
  • Disinfecting the wound with an antiseptic to keep germs or bacteria away.
  • Protecting it with gauze and a clean dressing while keeping the area dry at all times. 

How can I prevent wound infection at home?

Caring for small cuts or wounds at home is a simple process. You must follow these steps to prevent wound infection:

  • After an injury, immediately wash the wounded area with running water.
  • Pat dry the injured site and leave it uncovered (in case of a small cut).
  • Apply an antiseptic with clean hands and secure the area with gauze and a dressing.
  • Check on the wound every day and cleanse it.
  • Get a tetanus shot if the injury seems deep.
  • Visit a healthcare professional if the area does not seem to heal in 2-3 days.

When should I see a doctor for a cut?

Minor to moderate cuts and injuries can happen to anyone at any time. A patient may need to see a doctor if the wound is severe or results in further complications. A consultation is required in the following cases:

  • If a cut bleeds a lot: Bleeding is a natural phenomenon, but if the oozing of blood does not stop even after some time, you may need to visit a healthcare professional.
  • If a wound has edges that are apart or is deep and long: With obviously deep and long cuts or torn edges, you may require the intervention of a doctor.
  • Cuts from a bite: A bite from a snake or any other insect which seems harmful may need medical attention.
  • Cuts from something dirty or rusty: If you injure yourself with a rusty or dirty object, you may need a tetanus shot by a healthcare professional.

Conclusion

Cuts and scrapes may be an inevitable part of life, but seeking care at the right time is crucial. Wound Care professionals must be aware of the fact that infected wounds, if not monitored carefully, can result in fatality. Serious complications such as cellulitis, sepsis, osteomyelitis, or necrotizing fasciitis may occur.

FAQs:

Q: How long do infected wounds take to heal?

A: All wounds do not heal the same way and the amount of time taken depends on numerous factors such as medical history, age, and comorbidities. It depends on where the injury is, how it occurred and how much the infection has spread. In some cases, it may take days, weeks, or even months for the infection to clear up. 

Q: How do you know if an infection is serious?

A: An infected area that seems red and sore even days after the injury is considered serious. When a patient runs a high temperature, feels nauseous, has a rash coupled with body ache, and has an overall feeling of malaise, it means the infection needs medical attention.  

Q: How do you know if a wound is septic?

A: When the surrounding skin looks red and swollen and the infection has spread to the tissues beneath the skin (known as cellulitis), it means the infection is spreading. The result could be sepsis or a severe condition that could turn fatal.  

Q: What can I use to draw out infection?

A: The most common way to draw out infection is by a warm compressor and the use of antiseptics. It is advisable to seek the medical advice of a healthcare professional in case of a seriously infected wound to avoid further complications. 

Q: How do you treat an infected wound at home?

A: You can keep the area dry and clean while monitoring it every single day. If the infected area is small, doctors recommend oral antibiotics or a topical cream for the injury. For more complex or deep injuries, patients must seek medical advice.

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