Purulent Drainage

Medically reviewed by Carissa Stephens, RN, CCRN, CPN on July 5, 2017Written by Becky Young

Overview

Both surgical and open wounds can have different types of drainage. Purulent drainage is a type of fluid that is released from a wound. Often described as being “milky” in appearance, it’s almost always a sign of infection.

If you’re healing from a wound, you should keep a close eye on its drainage. It’s important to know what types of fluid your wound may ooze normally and which need to be examined.

Symptoms of purulent drainage

Purulent drainage is a type of liquid that oozes from a wound. Symptoms include:

  • thick consistency
  • “milky” appearance
  • green, yellow, brown, or white color
  • distinct odor

Some pale, thin liquid seeping from most wounds is normal. All wounds also have a certain odor. Different kinds of bacteria have different odors, consistencies, and colors. Additional bacteria are introduced to the affected area if there is dead tissue.

Drainage may have become purulent if the amount of liquid increases or the consistency of the liquid changes. Other causes for concern are changes in color and odor.

Causes of purulent drainage

Wound drainage is the result of the blood vessels dilating during the early stages of healing. This is possibly because certain bacteria are present at the time. Your body is creating a moist environment around the wound in an attempt to heal itself.

When drainage becomes purulent, it’s almost always because the wound has become infected. It’s easier for germs to get inside your skin if it’s broken. The germs then spread into the tissues underneath and cause an infection.

This makes the tissues painful and swollen. It also means they won’t heal as quickly or as well, or in some cases at all. Open wounds are more likely to develop infections than closed wounds, because the break in the skin gives the germs a way in.

Some situations make it more likely that your wound will become infected:

  • You have type 1 or 2 diabetes.
  • Your wound was caused by a dirty object.
  • Your wound was caused by a bite from a human or animal.
  • Your wound still contains a foreign object, such as glass or wood.
  • Your wound is large and deep.
  • Your wound has jagged edges.
  • Proper safety measures weren’t observed before a surgical procedure.
  • You’re an older adult.
  • You’re obese.
  • Your immune system doesn’t function well. For example, you have a disease that affects your immune system, such as AIDS.
  • You smoke, which causes small blood vessels to constrict and receive less blood and nutrients to heal a wound.

How purulent drainage is treated

The first objective for purulent drainage treatment is to treat the underlying cause of infection. Other goals include keeping heavy drainage contained and preventing wound softening while also maintaining a moist environment. This will allow the wound to heal on its own.

Treatment varies by the needs of the infected person, the type of wound, where on the body it’s located, and at what point of the healing process the wound is.

Complications

The main complication experienced with purulent drainage is wound infection. The most severe complication from a local infected wound is that it becomes a nonhealing wound, otherwise known as a chronic wound. A chronic wound is a lesion that doesn’t heal within eight weeks. This often results in substantial pain and discomfort. It can also affect your mental health.

Other complications can include:

  • cellulitis: bacterial infection of some layers of skin
  • osteomyelitis: bacterial infection of your bone or bone marrow
  • septicemia: bacterial presence in the blood that can lead to your whole body becoming inflamed

When to see your doctor

See your doctor immediately if you notice a change in color or odor of the fluid oozing from your wound. Purulent drainage is yellow, green, brown, or white and has a strong odor. The earlier an infection is caught, the easier it can be treated.

Outlook

The outlook for a person with purulent drainage is good, so long as they’re seen by a medical professional and treated effectively as soon as the infection is identified. Early detection is key. The longer the infection is left to take hold, the more likely it is to lead to more serious health complications.

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