When you have an opening in the skin from a cut or a scratch, you face a risk of infection. Bacteria from the skin or environment can get into your tissue, via the broken skin, and lead to mild to severe infections. Proper care is needed for both prevention and treatment of this complication. Minor infections can often be treated and monitored at home, however it's important to contact your doctor if you suspect you have any skin infection, in order to obtain treatment advice and ensure you receive necessary medical care.
If you have any signs of infection near your cut, such as redness, warmth, swelling, pain or drainage of pus, call or visit your doctor to have this assessed, and to understand your treatment plan. If the infection is moderate or severe, or if you have a fever, chills, or pain that is moving into the surrounding tissues, you need to be seen urgently. Also see a doctor right away if you have skin bumps that are red, warm, swollen, pus-filled and painful, as these are signs of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infection, which is resistant to common antibiotics and can easily spread to others.
After assessing the severity of your infected cut, your healthcare provider can outline treatment steps. Cleaning the area is often the first priority. For minor infections, warm water soaks may suffice. Your healthcare provider may use sterile saline or an antibiotic solution to clean the wound and if necessary, remove dead, damaged or infected tissue in order to promote healing.
Minor infections often require the application of over-the-counter or prescription antibiotic ointment. This should be applied daily, as directed, until the infection is gone. This ointment not only kills bacteria near the cut, but keeps the wound moist to promote healing. Moderate or severe infections usually require oral antibiotics, and in some cases intravenous medications to treat the infection. Take your full dose of antibiotics, even if the infection seems to be getting better. Not completing the antibiotic course can allow the bacteria to become resistant to the drug, making future infections harder to treat.
Cover the wound to keep it clean and moist as it heals. Use a sterile, nonstick bandage, and change the wound covering daily unless instructed otherwise. Do not pop or drain blisters or pockets of pus, because this can make the infection more likely to worsen or spread to others.
Take all prescribed antibiotics according to your health care provider's instructions, even if the infection seems to be getting better. If you stop the medication without taking the full course, the bacteria will not be eliminated from your system and may become resistant to the antibiotic you were taking, making the infection harder to treat.
Things You'll Need
Soap and water
Your doctor's phone number
To prevent a cut from becoming infected, clean it with soap and water after you control the bleeding. Apply sterile, nonstick bandages daily, or more often if the bandage gets wet or dirty.
Untreated or improperly treated infections can spread to other parts of the body and increase the risk of life-threatening complications. Seek treatment right away for any infected cuts. Seek urgent medical attention if your infection worsens or fails to improve, if you have red streaks or worsening pain from the infection site, if you have increased pus or a foul smell from the wound area, or if you develop a fever or chills.
Reviewed by Kay Peck, MPH RD