Whether you are recovering from a recent injury or surgery, it’s a good idea to be careful of any wound infections that may occur.
A wound or injury can result from any cut or puncture that breaks the top layer of skin. A foreign object will cause the wound, including a knife, plant, insect, animal, gun, or other objects.
The definition of a wound infection is when your cut becomes contaminated with bacteria, viruses, or other microorganisms that enter the break in your skin. A surgical wound infection can result from surgery as the name implies, and it typically occurs within 30 days of surgery.
Shallow cuts to most parts of the skin will rarely lead to bleeding, or if they do, they often stop on their own. That said, other wounds may lead to severe bleeding, and deeper wounds may even injure tendons, nerves, or blood vessels.
What Causes a Wound Infection?
Wound infections have a number of causes. For instance, certain bacteria and microorganisms can cause an infected wound, such as Streptococcus pyogenes, Staphylococcus aureus/MRSA, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and Eterococci. The following are a number of specific ways that a microorganism can cause an open wound infection:
- A foreign object, such as a piece of glass, a splinter, or a clothing fragment can remain hidden in a wound that later causes infection.
- Poor surgical technique, hypothermia, or an operating time longer than two hours.
- Direct contact of the wound with surgical equipment, or the hands of nurses or surgeons, if these things are contaminated.
- Contaminated airborne microorganisms that find their way into the wound.
Can Dirt Get in an Open Wound Cause an Infection?
When a wound is contaminated with bacteria and dirt, it can result in an infection. Take, for example, a motor vehicle accident. In this scenario, deep scrapes are likely to occur, and dirt can grind into the skin, which infects the wound with bacteria. If this happens, it’s best to carefully remove the debris or dirt from the wound with tweezers and clean it with alcohol. If dirt enters your wound after it begins to bleed, it’s likely that a wound infection will result as well.
Recognizing the Symptoms of a Wound Infection
A wound can be painful at the onset of the wound or injury; however, the pain will lessen after the first day. When there is an infection, you may notice delayed healing, an abnormal smell from the wound, or bleeding despite taking appropriate steps to care for the wound. The following are other wound or cut infection symptoms that you may experience:
- Feelings of fatigue: Malaise or fatigue is a common sign of a wound infection. It’s a feeling of a lack of energy or tiredness, and it’s common after surgery. However, those who recover from surgery without infection will likely feel better every day whereas those recovering from surgery with an infection may feel fine, but then will suddenly feel exhausted.
- A fever: A fever of 100 degrees Fahrenheit or less following surgery is common, but if your temperature rises to 101 degrees or more, it may be a sign of an infected wound.
- Redness, tenderness, and swelling: A little redness or tenderness will likely occur after surgery, but it will disappear over time. But if your surgical wound or incision continues to swell or show redness, it’s a warning sign of a wound infection called lymphangitis.
- Heat or inflammation at the site of wound: When there is an infection, the body sends blood cells to the area to fight it, and this may make the wound feel warm. If the warmth doesn’t go away, it may lead to other wound infection symptoms.
- Other wound infection symptoms: Other symptoms include dizziness or a fast heartbeat, a foul odor, or pus or blood coming from the wound.
How to Recognize the Differences between an Infected Wound, a Surgical Wound, and an Inflamed Wound
Every wound has the potential to become infected, which is why it’s important to recognize the differences between an inflamed wound, an infected wound, and a surgical wound. When a surgical wound heals, there are often some distinct skin changes around the wound. The following are some things to consider to help you understand the differences between these three types of wounds:
- Redness: Some redness or inflammation can be expected after surgery, but if it doesn’t fade after six months, the infection may be serious.
- Raised skin: Scarring is normal after surgery, and it’s a sign that the body is healing. You will see the skin raised as a result. But when there is a wound infection, the lymph nodes closest to the site of the surgery will enlarge, and it may be a sign that the wound is infected.
- Fluid: Fluid is a sign that the body is healing itself naturally, and a clear or slightly yellow fluid is normal after a few days after surgery. That said, if the fluid is green, cloudy, or foul-smelling then it could be a sign of a wound infection.
How a Wound Infection Is Diagnosed
After you get wounded, your doctor will likely interview you and ask about your medical history, and how you were wounded. Examining symptoms are the best way for your doctor to diagnose an infection, but they may also suggest certain tests, including:
- Blood tests: This is used to check for an infection.
- A wound culture: This a tissue or fluid test that determines what type of infection you have.
- A CT or MRI scan, or an X-ray: These tests will examine the tissues and bones of the wounded area.
How to Reduce a Wound Infection Naturally
The first step in a cut or wound infection treatment is to stop the bleeding. This is done by compressing the bleeding area firmly with your finger or hand for a minimum of five minutes.
You should also remove dirt and particles by washing the wound to prevent further infection. In this case, iodine, peroxide, and alcohol are not recommended since they can damage tissue and impair the body’s ability to heal. A wet bandage may be placed inside the wound and left to dry, and your doctor may need to drain pus from the wound infection.
Antibiotics are also thought to prevent or fight a wound infection caused by bacteria. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can be used to reduce fever, pain, or swelling, however, NSAIDs can lead to common side effects such as rash, drowsiness, or constipation.
Luckily, there are natural treatments for wound infection that can help speed up healing, especially after surgery, including:
1. Vitamin C
Several nutrients are key in the promotion of wound infection healing. Vitamin C, in particular, is important for preventing and repairing wound infections or injuries, and it can also help prevent scar tissues and boost the immune system.
2. Other Antioxidants
Besides vitamin C, there are other antioxidants that help with wound infection healing, including zinc, selenium, vitamin A, and vitamin E. Antioxidants are excellent for increasing immunity and speeding up wound healing.
Honey is a great way to improve wound healing. A study published in the Jundishapur Journal of Natural Pharmaceutical Products in 2013 found that honey has slightly superior effects when compared with conventional treatments for wounds and burns. Honey is known for its antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant properties, all of which can help treat a wound infection. Another research indicates that honey may even be more effective than antibiotics for preventing bacteria from entering a skin injury.
Garlic contains an antimicrobial agent called allicin, which can reduce the risk of a wound infection. In a study published in the Ethiopian Medical Journal in 2006, researchers found that garlic is an effective antibacterial agent in the treatment and prevention of wound infections.
5. Plantain Leaves
Plantain leaves have long been known for their cleansing and anti-inflammatory properties. To help treat wounds and prevent infection, simply crush the leaves to get their potent juice, and apply it to the wound after it has been thoroughly cleaned.
Some studies suggest that the anti-inflammatory properties of bromelain can effectively reduce swelling, tenderness, bruising, burns, and pain due to trauma. Bromelain is a proteolytic enzyme that has been found to reduce inflammation in injuries and prevent swelling after a trauma or surgery.
Curcumin is the yellow pigment in turmeric that exerts potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. Studies have even found that turmeric is as effective as cortisone. Although the drugs exhibit toxic effects, curcumin is side-effect free.
Chlorella is also used to improve the body’s natural wound-healing abilities by promoting cell growth in the bones and muscles. It can also cleanse the skin and boost the immune system.
9. Gotu Kola
Gotu kola has long been used in Asian cultures to treat wounds, infections, and scars. It’s used topically to increase antioxidant activity and repair connective tissues. Results from a study published in the International Journal of Lower Extremity Wounds in 2006 indicated that Gotu Kola leaf extract significantly promotes wound healing in rats.
There are also a number of homeopathic remedies that help treat a wound infection. For example, arnica is often the go-to remedy for swelling and injuries, or for after surgery. For open wounds, use arnica 30c every 10 minutes until the shock of the injury wears down, or until medical help arrives. Other remedies used for wounds or injuries include bellis, aconitum, calendula, hypericum, bryonia, ledum, rhus toxicodendron, ruta graveolens, staphysagria, and symphytum.
11. Other Remedies for Wound Infection
Other natural remedies used for a wound infection include calendula flower, chamomile, marshmallow root, cayenne pepper, lavender, aloe vera, goldenseal, tea tree oil, coconut oil, peppermint oil, cinnamon oil, witch hazel, comfrey root, and juniper leaves and berries.
What Increases the Risk of a Wound Infection?
There are various factors also thought to increase the risk of a wound infection. For instance, people with poor immune systems have a greater risk of developing a wound infection, especially those with cancer, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, those undergoing chemotherapy or radiation treatments, those undergoing dialysis, or those taking steroid drugs like prednisone. Other factors that delay healing or increase the risk of a wound being infected are:
- Endocrine and metabolic disorders, or liver, lung, or kidney conditions
- Poor blood supply to the wound
- Smoking, heart conditions, or blood vessel problems
- Repeated trauma to a healing wound
Foods to Eat and Avoid if You Have an Infected Wound
Nutrition is another very important factor for treating a wound infection. Certain foods can speed up the efficiency of healing, and certain foods have the opposite effect and should be avoided.
Foods to Eat
- Foods high in vitamin C such as tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, spinach, and parsley
- Antioxidant-heavy foods such as apples, asparagus, blueberries, and carrots
- Ghee (clarified butter)
- Organic and grass-fed meats
- Sweet potatoes
- Black beans
- Dark chocolate
Foods to Avoid
- Processed foods high in salt, sugar, and fat such as soda, candy, and cookies
- Processed and grain-fed meat
- Hydrogenated oils, fried foods, and doughnuts
- Gluten-containing grains such as wheat, kamut, barley, and rye
- Synthetic sweeteners, iodized salt, and food additives
- Dairy products such as milk, cheese, and yogurt
Preventing a Wound Infection
There are several ways to prevent a wound infection from occurring. Before handling your wound, wash your hands for 20 seconds with water and antibacterial soap, and rinse well. Next, dry your hands with a clean towel or paper towel. Other key ways to prevent wound infections include:
- Keeping your wound away from hair or other foreign objects;
- Using a bandage or dressing at all times, which will prevent infection by allowing the dressing to protect your wound from dirt or bacteria;
- Touching your bandages only with clean hands, and using gloves if available;
- Throwing your old bandages away in the trash by wrapping them in two plastic bags and tying them tightly;
- Keeping your unused bandages or dressings away from heat and putting them in a clean, sealed container; and
- Using a clean spot with a washed surface to change your bandages.
When to See the Doctor
There are also instances where you should seek medical assistance immediately with a wound infection. Contact your doctor if your swelling is consistent for longer than five days. Here are some other reasons to seek medical help right away:
- You have severe pain and the skin around your wound feels numb.
- Blood is soaking through your bandages.
- You cannot move one of your limbs below your infected wound.
- Your wound develops blisters, or the skin begins to change color or peel.
- The inside of the wound appears bright red or dark.
- You have frequent swelling, redness, or pain around the wound.
- There is a bad odor or fluid drainage coming from the wound infection.
- Color Changing Band-Aid Serves As Warning for Infections
- Study Brings New Hope for People with Chronic Wounds
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Murray, M., M.D., et al, The Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine (New York: Atria Paperback, 2012), 962–966.
Hershoff, A., N.D., Homeopathic Remedies: A Quick and Easy Guide to Common Disorders and Their Homeopathic Treatments (New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 1999), 197–198.
Yaghoobi, R., et al., “Evidence for Clinical Use of Honey in Wound Healing as an Anti-bacterial, Anti-inflammatory, Anti-oxidant, and Anti-viral Agent: A Review,” Jundishapur Journal of Natural Pharmaceutical Products, 2013; doi:10.17795/jjnpp-9487.
Tessema, B., et al., “An in vitro assessment of the antibacterial effect of garlic (Allium sativum) on bacterial isolates from wound infections,” Ethiopian Medical Journal, 2006; http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17370439.
Shetty, B.S., et al., “Effect of centella asiatica L (Umbelliferae) on normal and dexamethasone-suppressed wound healing in Wistar Albino rats,” International Journal of Lower Extremity Wounds, 2006; doi:10.1177/1534734606291313.
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