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Several clues can indicate that a cut is infected or at increased risk of infection. While it is possible to treat a minor infected cut at home, people should seek medical attention for unusually deep or painful cuts, or if the infection does not resolve within several days. Prolonged lack of treatment can cause septicemia, a complication of infection which can potentially kill.
One of the most obvious signs that a cut is infected is inflammation, characterized by swelling and heat around the cut. The inflammation may also cause the tissue around the cut to change color: it can appear reddened or blanched. If the skin turns greenish, blackish, or blue, it is a sign of a very serious infection accompanied by tissue death, and it needs medical attention immediately.
Infected cuts are also often painful and tender to the touch. The surrounding area may also feel painful or hard. While some discharge from a cut is normal, thick, smelly, or strangely colored discharges indicate that an infection may be active in the wound. Likewise, if a cut keeps breaking open and bleeding, this can indicate that the body's normal healing process has been interrupted by infection.
Home treatment of an infected cut includes gentle washing with antibacterial soap and warm water several times a day, and the use of antibiotic creams and ointments. Some people also find that it helps to apply hot poultices such as a washcloth dipped in very hot water and then wrung out to the wound. Allowing plenty of air to circulate across the cut can also be beneficial, although large and deep cuts should be bandaged.
If red stripes start to radiate out from an infected cut, the patient should seek medical attention immediately. If the infection fails to resolve within a few days, or gets worse, a doctor should be consulted, as he or she can provide stronger medications and more in-depth treatments, including debridement of the cut to remove debris which may be trapped inside. An altered level of consciousness, fever, or headache can be a sign that the infection is spreading and that it may have reached a dangerous state.
Even a minor abrasion can become seriously infected if it is not properly cleaned and cared for at the time that the cut occurred. Caring for cuts properly when they happen and keeping them clean can greatly reduce the risk of developing a severe infection.