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 or injury, or after a surgical procedure.
As with any type of wound, an infection can develop at or around the stitches. Let’s take a look at some of the basics of infected stitches and what to do about them. We’ll also discuss 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:
- redness or swelling around the stitches
- an increase in pain or tenderness at the wound
- warmth at or around the site
- blood or pus leaking from the stitches, which may have a foul odor
- swollen lymph nodes
Our skin provides us with a natural barrier to infection. It’s very hard for germs to enter the body through intact skin.
This changes when the skin is broken, as the wound provides germs with a direct route to the inside of the body. You’re then more prone to developing an infection from germs located naturally on your skin or in the environment.
Infected stitches are most often caused by bacteria. Common types of bacteria that can infect wounds include Streptococcus, Staphylococcus, and Pseudomonas species.
There are some additional factors that can put you at risk for developing infected stitches. For example, if:
- the wound wasn’t properly cleaned before giving stitches
- proper sanitization precautions weren’t taken before a 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 two hours
- you’re an older adult
- you’re of a heavier weight
- you have a weakened immune system due to circumstances like chemotherapy, HIV/AIDS, or an organ transplant
- you have diabetes
- you smoke
If you find that you’re experiencing any of the symptoms of infected stitches, you should see your doctor promptly.
Your doctor may take a sample of discharge from your infected stitches. They can use this sample to help identify if bacteria are causing your infection.
Once a bacterial infection is confirmed, your doctor can then perform antibiotic susceptibility testing to determine which antibiotics will be most effective for treating the infection.
Other tests and culturing methods can be used if a fungal infection is suspected.
If your infection is small or localized, your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic cream to apply to the site.
If the infection is more serious or affects a larger area, your doctor can prescribe an oral antibiotic. They’ll use the information they received from antibiotic susceptibility testing to determine which antibiotic is best to treat the infection.
A very severe infection may require intravenous (IV) antibiotics 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
You should avoid getting your stitches wet for at least 24 hours. Ask your doctor when you can get them wet, such as in the shower. Avoid soaking in a tub or swimming while you’re healing.
Always be sure to gently pat your stitches dry with a clean towel after getting them wet.
Keep your stitches clean
If your 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 beforehand. You naturally have bacteria living on your skin and under your fingernails. Itching, scratching, or picking at your stitches can lead to infection.
Avoid strenuous activities
Exercise and contact sports can place strain on your stitches, causing them to tear. Ask your 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 with no long-term effects.
If you notice that your stitches have become red, swollen, more painful, or are oozing pus or blood, see your doctor.
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.