How to tell whether a cut is infected

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How to tell whether a cut is infected
Cover your cut and keep an eye out for infection. (bandage image by Byron Moore from

Cuts on the skin can range from minor scrapes to deep gouges that require stitches and surgery. The epidermis is an amazing organ, because it protects the body from infection. Once it is punctured, however, the risk of infection increases greatly. There are some easy ways to determine whether your cut is infected, or if it might become infected. Following a few tips can also avoid having it become so.

Skill level:

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    Determine how serious the original cut is. How deep the cut is usually determines how serious it is. This does not mean that a shallow cut cannot become infected or won't be a serious hazard; sometimes the smallest of cuts can be overlooked as threats when they really are. A deep cut, however, can become infected more easily. In either case, disinfect the cut with soap and water or iodine as soon as you are able. Cover the cut once it is disinfected with a sterile bandage. If the cut is small, use an adhesive bandage. If it is large, use gauze and medical tape. Then watch it closely over the next several days for signs of infection.

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    Look for redness and swelling. The first sign of infection in a cut is puffiness in the skin surrounding the cut and a streaky redness on the cut itself and the area around it. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It means that your body's immune system is doing its job and is repairing the damaged tissue. If the swelling and puffiness continue for more than four or five days and worsen instead of getting better, seek medical attention.

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    Watch for discharge. Your body's white blood cells are like your circulatory system's army. They march in where there is infection, then fight and die. The dead white blood cells are what make up pus that comes out of an infected cut. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing. It means that your white blood cells are doing their job. It does mean, however, that the cut should start looking and feeling better shortly thereafter. If it doesn't, contact your physician.

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    Know when to go to the hospital. There are certain kinds of cuts that require immediate attention by a doctor, even before you have a chance to look for infection. If a metal object pierces your skin, and if you have not had a shot for temporomandibular joint disorder or lockjaw in the past five years (tetanus inoculation), you must seek immediate medical treatment. Lockjaw can set in from internal exposure to dirty metal objects, and it is easy to avoid if you have a shot administered right away. Also, if your cut is from an animal that you do not know, especially a wild animal such as a squirrel or a stray dog, you must get a rabies shot. These shots are not a lot of fun, but they will prevent you from a great deal of anguish in the long run.

Tips and warnings

  • If you have diabetes or issues with circulation, you may be more likely to get an infection even from an insignificant cut, or have trouble with the cut healing. If you suffer from either condition, consult your health care provider.

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