Blog | Friday, October 7, 2016

How to know if something is infected

How can you know if an injury is infected? Patients are often concerned when wounds don't heal right away and this causes them to make needless visits to the doctor or emergency room. Here is a picture of a wound that is about 6 days old. My little dog scratched my arm while I was giving her a bath.

Is this scratch infected?

If you said no, it is healing well, you would be correct. Even though it is still swollen around the scratch and it is obviously red and a little warm, these are signed of normal skin healing. I can picture my white blood cells and monocytes racing to the area to deal with bacteria from the scratch. The redness and swelling are an inflammatory response that my immune system is producing to contain the bacteria and turn over new cells.

Signs of infection would be redness that continues to extend outside the wound that is worsening over time. The swelling wouldn't stay the same, it would expand day by day. The cut itself might start oozing under the scab that is forming. If any of that occurred, it would be time to get it checked out.

As we get older (ahem!) we heal more slowly. Cuts and lacerations might take weeks to heal, rather than the days of healing that occurred when we were youths. This is normal also.

The best thing to do when you get a scratch or cut is to wash it with regular soap and water. Antimicrobial soaps do not offer any advantage and sterile water is not needed. Cover the wound with a bandage or clean gauze. If it is a deep cut that continues to bleed, that is a sign that sutures (stitches) might be needed. Otherwise just let your body do its magic and heal.

This post originally appeared at Everything Health. Toni Brayer, MD, FACP, is an ACP Internist editorial board member who blogs at EverythingHealth, designed to address the rapid changes in science, medicine, health and healing in the 21st Century.