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What Is a Calcium Alginate Dressing?

By M. Haskins
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A calcium alginate dressing is a topical wound dressing made with the ingredient alginate, also called algin, which is a highly-absorbent substance that is extracted from the cell walls of brown seaweed. This type of dressing is used for dermal wounds that produce exudate, meaning that they ooze bodily fluids such as blood, plasma, mucus or pus. For these kinds of wounds, a calcium alginate dressing is often preferable over other dressings because it is easier to remove, causes less pain and promotes faster healing. These dressings have been utilized in wound care for more than 50 years and are used for certain kinds of burns, venous ulcers, pressure ulcers, diabetic foot ulcers and some cavity wounds as well as various other wounds. The dressings are available in fibrous, non-woven sheets for shallow wounds, and in a rope-like form for deep wounds.

Alginate fibers can absorb up to 20 times their own weight in fluid, and the calcium alginate dressing itself turns into a viscous, gel-like substance as this absorption takes place. This produces a moist, sterile environment that promotes healing and minimizes bacterial infection in the wound. These dressings also promote wound healing by helping with debridement, meaning the removal of infected, dead or damaged tissue that can otherwise interfere with healing and cause pain and further infection.

For both shallow and deep wounds that ooze large or medium amounts of bodily fluids, a calcium alginate dressing often works better than regular dressings such as saline soaked gauze. Other dressings might stick to an oozing wound, but the moistness of this type of dressing makes it more comfortable for the patient while it is on, and makes it easier and less painful to change or remove. Some calcium alginate dressings can even be washed off with saline rather than pulled off the wound, making removal even easier.

Calcium alginate dressings come in two forms: sheets and ropes. The sheets are available in various sizes and are used for shallow wounds; they are either applied directly or soaked in a saline solution before application. The rope or ribbon shaped dressings are recommended for deep wounds, and are packed into the wound itself. This type of dressing should be changed every day and is not recommended for wounds that are dry and produce little fluid because its absorbency might cause dryness and scabbing. Side-effects of these dressings are very unusual and can usually be avoided by proper wound care and careful removal of the dressing.

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Discussion Comments
By OeKc05 — On Aug 13, 2011

I became curious about calcium alginate while wearing a bandage. I found out that it is insoluble in water, and this is the reason it can be used to bandage oozing areas. It is soluble in a saline solution, which is why it can be washed off with one.

Calcium alginate is also used worldwide to make decorative food. In Japan, it is used with dye and fish oils to make cheap “fish eggs.” In Spain, it is used as a bead to capture fruit juices that burst forth like pop rocks in your mouth. Other countries make fake blackcurrants and strawberries by using it to bind fruit puree together in these shapes.

By shell4life — On Aug 12, 2011

I fell while roller skating down a paved hill and scraped a layer of skin off of my knee. Since this wound constantly seemed to ooze fluid, my doctor wrapped it in a calcium alginate dressing sheet.

Before applying it, he soaked the sheet in a saline solution. He gave me a bottle of the solution to take home. He told me I could squirt it on the dressing to help remove it. It really made changing the sheet every day easier.

I soaked each new sheet in the saline solution before applying it, just like he had done. I wore the dressings for two weeks. After that, the oozing had stopped, so I had to quit wearing them.

By Perdido — On Aug 12, 2011

My doctor told me about a couple of different types of calcium alginate dressings as he was wrapping up my laceration. Different ingredients used to make the dressings are released into the wound to keep it from drying out.

One type includes honey. He said that the honey is released when it the dressing touches the fluid from the wound. The honey keeps the wound moist.

Another type is made to release silver ions when it comes in contact with the wound fluid. Ionic silver gets released during a period of four days. Silver ions have the power to fight many microorganisms that can cause a wound to become infected.

By Oceana — On Aug 11, 2011

When I got bitten by a poisonous spider, my doctor had to dig out the rotting, infected flesh, leaving behind a big hole. This wound oozed a lot of pus, and she filled it with calcium alginate dressing.

She used the rope kind. She stuffed it down in the wound, packing it tightly. I was glad she had numbed the area, because it looked like it would have really hurt.

I had to change the dressing often, so I was glad that she used this type of dressing. Removing it did not hurt, because it did not cling to the wounded area. I was able to pull it out easily.

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