How To Recognize and Treat an Infected Cut, Burn, or Abrasion

Sometimes you have to pay attention to how you feel—not just how bad the cut looks.

Some cuts, abrasions, and burns will heal quickly while others take their sweet time. The location of the injury, how deep it is, what caused it, and how you treat the wound can all cause the healing process to take more or less time than usual.

A cut might not look pretty while it heals, but that doesn't necessarily mean that anything is wrong. But there is a point where a the way an injury looks and feels can signal a problem, usually an infection. Just like an infection inside your body, you don't want to ignore infections in or on your skin.

So what's normal and what isn't when it comes to cuts? And how should you treat a cut that's become infected? Here's a guide to decoding if the wound on your skin has become infected and ways to treat it.

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Recognizing an Infected Wound

Identifying infected wounds can be tricky because mild redness, swelling, and pain are normal in the first hours and days after you get a cut.

Additional Symptoms

"Any redness that extends more than a quarter-inch around the cut or doesn't go away can be a sign of infection," said Michael Billet, MD, an emergency medicine physician at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland. Dr. Billet added that "symptoms like fever, chills, swollen lymph nodes, and malaise indicate the infection is spreading outside the area of the injury."

If the affected area around your cut is growing and you're feeling physically ill in any way, those are signs that something is wrong. You may also notice that the skin around your cut is swollen and warm to the touch. It's possible you might see red streaks moving from the center of the cut outward. And there could be pus or discharge oozing from the cut as well.

Appearance

Here's an example of what an infected cut looks like; note how the redness has spread more than a quarter-inch from the opening in the skin and how some parts of the cut look puffy and crusty.

Wound infection
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Risk Factors

There are two things that increase your risk of an infection post-injury, said Dr. Billet: the type of cut and your overall health. Cuts are more likely to become infected when the cut is:

  • From a bite
  • On your feet
  • From a crush injury
  • Not treated right away
  • Dirty

"A relatively clean cut, like one from a just-washed kitchen knife, is less likely to cause an infection than stepping on a piece of glass at the beach," Dr. Billet explained.

But your own health history plays a role here, too. Certain medical conditions, like diabetes, obesity, athlete's foot, or eczema can cause cuts to become infected more easily.

At-home Treatment

If you have a relatively small or minor cut and no major health complications, you might be able to treat your infected cut at home, if you catch it early enough.

"Very early on in the infection, when it's mildly red, you can apply some heat to the area to increase circulation and bring your natural blood cells to the area [to promote healing]," William Edwards, MD, an emergency medicine physician at Houston Methodist, told Health.

Additionally, you should aim to follow two basic first aid steps: Clean and cover.

Clean

There are several ways to clean a cut. But generally, you can follow these steps:

  1. Rinse the wound with running water and soap to clean the area around the cut.
  2. Use pressure to stop the bleeding, if there is any.
  3. If there is any debris in the wound, seek care from a healthcare professional so that they can remove it.

Cover

You should put a clean bandage or wound dressing on your cut and change the bandage at least daily until the cut has scabbed over. Using an antibiotic cream is optional; some people find this speeds the healing process, but others may have an allergic reaction to products like Neosporin; and that reaction can actually mimic infection symptoms, said Dr. Billet.

When To See a Healthcare Provider

If cleaning and covering your cut doesn't stop the early stages of infection, you'll have to see a healthcare provider for further treatment. If your cut or burn is deep, it's important to do this as soon as possible, said Dr. Edwards, because stitches typically can't be used when a cut is more than 12 hours old. He also noted that sometimes shallow cuts in certain jointed locations—like elbows or knuckles—can be sutured to avoid the constant re-opening that may happen with frequent use.

You May Need Antibiotics

Even if stitches aren't required, a healthcare provider may need to debride your cut (aka, clean it of dead or infected tissue) and prescribe antibiotics to prevent infection. A variety of antibiotics are used to treat infected cuts.

"Human or animal bites require one type of antibiotic while we use another type for normal scrapes and cuts," said Dr. Edwards. "Superficial infections can be treated with oral antibiotics but deeper infections...may require inpatient IV antibiotics and maybe even surgical drainage."

Don't Ignore A Small Cut

Even if your cut was initially small, don't dismiss signs of infection or assume it will simply go away on its own; even tiny cuts can be a window of opportunity for pathogens, some of which can lead to serious illnesses and require immediate medical attention.

"Infection that is spreading outwards from the cut or streaking away from the cut almost always requires antibiotics," explained Dr. Billet, "and any cut that happens in dirty water should be checked out since they usually need antibiotics to prevent an infection."

If Your Symptoms Aren’t Improving

Dr. Billet said pain and redness that isn't getting better after washing and using over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers should be evaluated by a medical professional—and it's better to be safe than sorry. "Basically if you're worried, get it checked out," Dr. Billet advised. "I would rather see 100 worried well patients than have someone sit at home and have things get worse."

Complications

Some common complications of infected cuts can include:

  • Cellulitis which is a bacterial infection of the deep skin tissue.
  • Tetanus which is bacterial infection that causes tightening of the muscles. "Tetanus is very rare for people who had the vaccine as kids, but it's life-threatening if it happens," said Dr. Billet. "A cut is a good reminder to get a booster if you haven't had one in the last 10 years."
  • Sepsis is a potentially fatal inflammatory reaction caused by an infection that has spread throughout the entire body.
  • Necrotizing fasciitis is a bacterial infection that causes tissue death and can lead to toxic shock syndrome.

Most of these complications are rare if you get prompt medical care, but your risk for scomplications increases the longer you leave an infection untreated.

Prevention

The easiest way to prevent a cut from becoming infected is to follow the same two steps for care of an infected cut: Clean and cover.

"The easiest and most effective treatment is to hold the cut under a forceful stream of tap water for at least a minute," said Dr. Billet. "Longer if the cut is large or particularly dirty."

Dr. Edwards agreed, saying that turbulence is one of the best approaches for dislodging particles that could cause infection. After that, Dr. Edwards recommended cleaning the cut daily with a half-strength mixture of hydrogen peroxide and water, using a topical antibiotic ointment like polysporin or bacitracin, and applying a non-adherent covering over the cut loosely enough that it won't disrupt the healing process when you need to remove and change the bandage.

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Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Library of Medicine. Cuts and puncture wounds.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Skin infections.

  3. Manna B, Nahirniak P, Morrison CA. Wound debridement. In: StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing; 2022.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Necrotizing fasciitis.

  5. National Library of Medicine. Sepsis.

  6. National Library of Medicine. Tetanus.

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