Recognizing and Treating Wound Infection

Wounds can become infected with harmful germs (bacteria). This prevents healing. It also increases your risk of scars. In some cases, the infection may spread to other parts of your body. An infection with the bacteria that causes tetanus can be fatal. Know what to look for and get prompt treatment for infection.

Skin wound healing normally.

Infected skin wound.

A wound that is healing normally is bright, beefy red.

A wound that is not healing normally may be dark in color or have red streaks.

What are the risk factors for infection?

A wound is more likely to become infected if it:

  • Results from a hole (puncture), such as from a nail or piece of glass

  • Results from a human or animal bite

  • Isn't cleaned or treated within 8 hours

  • Occurs in your hand, foot, leg, armpit, or groin (the area where your belly meets your thighs)

  • Contains dirt or saliva

  • Heals very slowly

  • Occurs in a person with diabetes, alcoholism, or a weak immune system

What are the symptoms of infection?

Call your healthcare provider at the first sign of infection, such as:

  • Yellow, yellow-green, or foul-smelling drainage from a wound

  • More pain, swelling, or redness in or near a wound

  • A change in the color or size of a wound

  • Red streaks in the skin around the wound

  • Fever

How are infections treated? 

Treatment depends on the type of infection you have, and how serious it is. Your healthcare provider may prescribe oral antibiotics to help fight bacteria. Your provider may also flush the wound with an antibiotic solution or apply an antibiotic ointment. Sometimes a pocket of pus (abscess) may form. In that case, the abscess will be opened and the fluid drained. You may need hospital care if the infection is very severe.

Preventing wound infection

Follow these steps to help keep wounds from getting infected:

  • Wash the wound right away with soap and water.

  • Apply a small amount of antibiotic ointment. You can buy this without a prescription.

  • Cover wounds with a bandage or gauze dressing. Change daily.

  • Keep the wound clean and dry for the first 24 hours.

  • Change the dressing daily using sterile gloves.