Wound infection – prevention and treatment

Preventing and treating a wound infection

When skin is broken from a wound, burn or bite it can get infected. It's important to clean the area well and get it checked by a doctor or nurse if it is large or deep, or if you are concerned it might be infected.

Where does a wound infection come from?

There are thousands of germs on your skin so it is not surprising that some can enter a wound or a burn site to cause an infection when the skin is broken or cut.  Germs can also get into a wound from soil or water during a trauma or from a human or animal mouth in the case of a bite. Even during a surgical procedure it is possible for germs to get into a surgical wound.

Some circumstances make it more likely that wounds will become infected. These include:

  • If you have type 1 or type 2 diabetes.
  • If the object which caused the wound was dirty and contained germs.
  • The size and depth of the wound – larger or deeper wounds are more likely to become infected.
  • If you are an older person – your skin doesn't heal as well as you get older.
  • If you are very overweight.
  • If you smoke.
  • If your immune system does not work as well as normal, eg, if you are on medication such as steroids or chemotherapy, or if you have HIV/AIDS.

How can I stop a wound getting infected?

  • Start by cleaning the wound and the skin around it with cool boiled water, or tap water if it is drinking quality.
  • Make sure you clean out any debris (eg, soil, grass, hair, bits of tooth) that might have got into the wound.
  • If it is bleeding a lot, a deep wound or the edges are far apart, get it looked at by your doctor or the emergency department. You might need stitches.
  • Use an antiseptic solution around the wound to help keep bacteria (germs) out.
  • Put a dressing or plaster over it. Don’t use gauze or anything that might stick to it.
  • Keep a close eye on your wound in case it does get infected.

What are the signs of a wound infection?

A wound that has become, or is becoming, infected may:

  • Become more painful instead of gradually improving.
  • Look red around the edges. This red area may feel warm or hot.
  • Look swollen.
  • Ooze a yellow material (pus) which may be smelly.

If the infection spreads further, the redness will keep spreading to more areas of skin. You may feel unwell in yourself, with a high temperature and aches and pains.

Image credit: Canva

Why should infected wounds be treated?

Infection usually starts in the area where the skin has been broken or cut. If a wound infection is not quickly and successfully treated, it may spread. The surrounding skin may become red and swollen and sore. The infection may spread to the deeper tissues beneath the skin. This spreading infection is called cellulitis. As the infection spreads, it may spread through the blood right through your system, making you feel unwell in yourself. This can give you a high temperature and may develop into a severe infection called sepsis.

How is a wound infection treated?

If you think your wound might be infected, ask your doctor or nurse to have a look. They will advise you on how to treat it and whether you need any medicine or other type of treatment. 

They will also tell you what you can do at home to care for your infected wound. If they prescribe antibiotics it is important that you take them as advised and take the full course even if you are feeling better and your wound is healing.

Learn more

The following links provide further information about wound infections. Be aware that websites from other countries may have information that differs from New Zealand recommendations.  

Cuts, grazes and puncture wounds Ministry of Health, NZ
Wounds
 DermNet, NZ
Good food for wound healing HealthInfo, NZ 
Wounds – how to care for them Better Health Channel, Australia

References

  1. Wound Infections 3D Community HealthPathways, NZ (log on details required) 
  2. Infected wounds Patient Info, UK, 2020  
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team.