Infected stitches are a medical emergency, but treatment is typically uncomplicated. Symptoms include redness, fever, pain, and leaking blood or pus.
Stitches, also referred to as sutures, are thin loops of thread that are used to bring together and close the edges of a wound. You may find you need stitches following an accident, an injury, or a surgical procedure.
As with any type of wound, an infection can develop at or around the stitches. Read on to learn about infected stitches and what to do about them. Also, you’ll learn how you may be able to prevent an infection in the first place.
If your stitches have become infected, you may notice the following symptoms:
Your skin provides you with a natural barrier to infection. It’s very hard for germs to enter the body through intact skin.
When the skin is broken, the wound provides germs with a direct route to the inside of the body. You’re then more prone to developing an infection from the germs that are located naturally on your skin or in the environment.
In addition, you may be at risk for developing infected stitches if:
- the wound wasn’t properly cleaned before you were given stitches
- proper sanitization precautions weren’t taken before your surgical procedure
- the object that caused the wound contained germs
- you have a deep wound or a wound with jagged edges
- you’ve had a surgical procedure that lasts
longer than 2 hours
- you’re an older adult
- you have overweight or obesity
- you have a weakened immune system because of chemotherapy, an autoimmune disease, HIV or AIDS, or an organ transplant
- you have diabetes
- you smoke tobacco products
If you find that you’re experiencing any of the symptoms of infected stitches, see a doctor immediately.
The doctor may take a sample of discharge from your infected stitches. They can use this sample to help determine whether one or more bacteria are causing your infection. Other tests and culturing methods can be used if they suspect a fungal infection.
If there’s an abscess, a healthcare professional may need to incise and drain it. Primary treatment for the abscess will include packing it with gauze in addition to the incision and drainage.
Abscesses are typically caused by bacteria. If a bacterial infection is confirmed and antibiotic therapy is also deemed necessary, then the doctor can also perform culture and sensitivity testing on the expressed pus. This will help them see which antibiotic will be the most effective.
If your infection is more serious or affects a larger area, the doctor can prescribe an oral antibiotic. If your infection is small or localized superficially, the doctor may prescribe an antibiotic cream to apply to the site.
A very severe infection may require intravenous (IV) antibiotic therapy or surgical removal of any dead or dying tissue.
You can help to prevent an infection of your stitches by following the guidelines below:
Keep your stitches dry
Avoid getting your stitches wet for at least 24 hours. Ask the doctor when you can perform activities that will wet the stitches, like taking a shower. Avoid soaking in a tub or swimming while you’re healing.
When your stitches get wet, always be sure to pat them dry with a clean towel.
Keep your stitches clean
If the doctor has placed a bandage or dressing on your stitches, be sure to follow their instructions about when to remove it. Use soap and warm water to gently clean the stitches, patting dry with a clean towel.
Avoid touching your stitches
If you must touch your stitches, make sure that your hands are clean first. Bacteria live naturally on your skin and under your fingernails. Scratching or picking at your stitches can lead to infection.
Avoid strenuous activities
Exercise and contact sports can place strain on your skin and stitches, causing them to tear. Ask the doctor when you can return to your normal physical activities.
Most cases of infected stitches can be successfully treated with a topical or oral antibiotic and result in no long-term effects.
Speak with a doctor If you notice that the skin near your stitches:
- has become red
- has become swollen
- has become more painful
- is oozing pus or blood
If left untreated, a case of infected stitches can become serious and cause complications, some of which can become life threatening.
The best way to prevent an infection of your stitches is to keep them clean and dry and to avoid touching them unnecessarily while your wound is healing.