How to recognize and treat an infected wound

A wound infection occurs when germs, such as bacteria, grow inside the damaged skin of a wound. Symptoms can include increased pain, swelling, and redness. More serious infections can cause nausea, chills, or fever. A person may be able to treat minor wound infections at home. However, people with more severe or persistent wound infections should seek medical attention.

How to recognize a wound infection

People can usually safely treat small wounds, such as minor cuts and scratches, at home. With proper care, most small wounds will gradually improve until fully healed. However, if a wound becomes infected, it can get worse rather than better. Any pain, redness, and swelling will increase in intensity. Wound infections can also cause other symptoms, such as:

  • Warm skin around the wound.
  • Yellow or green discharge from the wound.
  • The wound gives off an unpleasant odor.
  • Red streaks on the skin around the wound.
  • Fever and chills
  • Aches and pains.
  • Sickness.
  • Vomiting

Treating infected wounds at home

People with a mild infection from a small wound can treat the wound at home. However, more serious wound infections require immediate medical attention, particularly those that occur along with other symptoms, such as fever, malaise, or discharge and red streaks in the wound. To treat an infected wound at home, follow these steps:

  • Before you begin, make sure all necessary equipment is clean. For example, if you use tweezers, wash them first with alcohol.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water, then rinse and dry.
  • Clean the cut or scrape by running warm water for several minutes. Use soap and warm water to clean the surrounding skin, but avoid getting soap on the wound.
  • Make sure there is no dirt or debris, such as glass or gravel, on the wound. To remove debris, use tweezers or gently rub the wound with a soft, damp cloth.
    If desired, apply a thin layer of antiseptic ointment or petroleum jelly to the cut or scrape.
  • Allow skin to air dry before covering with gauze or bandage.
  • There is generally no need to cover minor cuts and scratches.
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Other tips for treating wounds at home include:

  • Change the wound dressing at least once a day. Replace it immediately if it gets wet or dirty.
  • Gently wash the wound each day.
  • Avoid using hydrogen peroxide or iodine on the wound, as they can cause skin irritation in some people. Stop using other antiseptic ointments if they cause skin irritation.
  • Do not touch the skin or the scab, as this can cause scarring, delay healing, and increase the risk of infection.
  • If the wound shows no signs of improvement in 1 to 2 days, see a doctor.

How to prevent wound infection

Cleaning and protecting a wound can reduce the risk of infection. After sustaining a small cut or scratch, a person should:

  • Immediately wash the wound by running clean water over it for several minutes. Then clean the skin around the wound with soap and warm water. If clean water cannot be used, treat the wound with alcohol wipes.
  • Let the skin air dry.
  • Apply an antiseptic ointment to the wound.
  • Protect the injury with gauze or other suitable dressing.
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People with larger wounds or excessive bleeding will require medical treatment. A healthcare professional can treat the injury to prevent infection and other complications. People with animal bites or wounds from dirty or rusty objects may be at risk for tetanus and should also seek medical attention. A healthcare professional can clean the wound and give the person an injection to protect against tetanus infection if necessary.

Tetanus is a potentially fatal condition that occurs when certain bacteria enter the body and release toxins that affect the nerves. Symptoms of tetanus can include painful muscle spasms, lockdown, and fever.

Risk factors

Cuts, scrapes, and other breaks in the skin can become infected when bacteria enter the wound and begin to multiply. Bacteria can come from the surrounding skin, the external environment, or the object that caused the injury. It is important to clean and protect the wound properly to reduce the risk of infection. The risk of wound infection is higher if:

  • The wound is large, deep, or has a jagged edge.
  • There is dirt or foreign particles in the wound.
  • The cause of the injury was a bite from an animal or another person.
  • The cause of the injury was an injury involving a dirty, rusty, or contaminated object.

Certain health conditions and environmental factors can also increase the risk of infection. These include:

  • Diabetes.
  • Poor blood circulation
  • A weakened immune system, such as in people living with HIV or taking immunosuppressive medications.
  • Lack of mobility, for example, in people who spend most of their time in bed.
  • Older age: older adults are at higher risk of wound infection
    nutrient and vitamin deficiencies
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In rare cases, incisional wounds from surgical procedures can also become infected. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 1.9 percent of surgical wounds became infected in people who had operations.


If a person is not treated for a wound infection, it can spread to other parts of the body, which can lead to serious complications, such as:

  • Cellulitis is an infection of the deeper layers and tissues of the skin, and it can cause swelling, redness, and pain in the affected area. Other symptoms can include fever, dizziness, and nausea and vomiting.
  • Osteomyelitis is a bacterial infection of the bone, and symptoms include pain, redness, and swelling around the infected area. Fatigue and fever are other symptoms that can affect people with osteomyelitis.
  • Sepsis is an extreme immune reaction that can sometimes occur when an infection enters the bloodstream. Sepsis can lead to multiple organ failure and is life threatening.
  • Necrotizing fasciitis is a rare condition that occurs when a bacterial infection spreads into a tissue called the fascial lining that is deep within the skin.
  • Necrotizing fasciitis is a medical emergency that causes severe skin damage and pain and can spread throughout the body.
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