Everything You Should Know About Chronic Infections: Diagnosis and Treatments

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Every year, five million Americans suffer from a health nightmare: a wound that just won’t heal.

With the rise of chronic diseases and an aging population, non-healing wounds are becoming a reality for more and more people. The question is, what are they, and how can you overcome them?

The vast majority of non-healing wounds have one thing in common: chronic infections. These infections keep your wounds from healing, keeping you from participating in life activities. Not only that, they keep you at risk for even worse infections.

Chronic infections are common, but they are dangerous too. Thankfully, you don’t have to live with a chronic wound, even if you’ve tried and failed to get it healed in the past.

If you’re wondering how to get rid of chronic infections, keep reading. We’ll explain what medical research says about healing your chronic infections for good. You’ll even learn where to find the most cutting-edge treatment to get the best results.

What Are Chronic Infections?

When you get any kind of wound, your body is vulnerable to a bacterial infection. Bacteria love to come and make their home in the warm, nutrient-rich environment of a wound.

Virtually every wound has bacteria present in it. If there is only a small amount of bacteria and they haven’t begun to grow, it’s called bacterial contamination.

In healthy wounds, your body fights off bacteria before they can cause any problems. If they can, those bacteria will make themselves comfortable in your wound and begin to procreate. When this happens, you have a bacterial infection.

There are different types of infections: acute infections and chronic ones. To understand the difference, take a look at the inflammation reaction that happens when you get an injury.

The Inflammation Response

Your body has multiple lines of defense to fight off an infection. First, your body launches the inflammation response.

Whenever your body senses an injury, it sends chemical messengers called cytokines through your bloodstream to the site of the injury. These messengers tell your body to react to the injury by:

  • Dilating (widening) your blood vessels
  • Letting more fluid seep from your blood vessels into your tissues
  • Sending more infection-fighting cells to the injured area

You’ll feel this reaction just minutes after you get any injury. The injured site will feel swollen, sore, and hot. You may even feel throbbing because of the increased blood flow to the area.

Why does this inflammation reaction take place?

Inflammation increases the temperature of the tissue, which can kill certain bacteria. Not only that, but it gets more blood flowing to the area, which means more bacteria-killing white blood cells. Inflammation is a quick reaction that helps stop the bacterial infection before it starts.

Infected Wounds

Even after your body launches an immune response, bacteria or fungi sometimes manage to hang on in their new home. If they start to grow, you’ll see the telltale signs and symptoms of infection:

  • Red or dark pink skin around the wound
  • Swelling in the area of the wound
  • Pus coming from the wound (either draining from it or visible as a white area underneath the skin)
  • Itching
  • A cheese-like or fermenting smell

You may see the reddened area around the wound grow larger every day. This shows that the infection is beginning to spread through your soft tissue, in a condition called cellulitis. In this case, you have an acute infection.

Most wound and soft tissue infections can be treated with antibiotics. (If the infection is caused by a fungal microorganism, you’ll need an antifungal medication instead.) You might take antibiotic pills, get your antibiotics through an IV, or apply a topical antibiotic cream.

When you have an acute infection, it’s important to treat it right away. Otherwise, it can spread from your soft tissue into your bloodstream. This leads to a dangerous condition called sepsis, which requires rapid emergency treatment.

The good news is that many infections can be treated effectively with antibiotics. However, in some cases, the infection doesn’t go away. That’s when an acute infection develops into a chronic one.

Chronic Wound Infections

Sometimes your body’s natural defenses don’t rid your wound of bacteria.

This can happen if your body’s defenses are compromised. For instance, with diabetes, your blood vessels can get damaged, which makes it harder for them to carry out the inflammation reaction. When that happens, your natural lines of defense against infection don’t work well enough to keep bacteria at bay.

In addition, some bacteria are resistant to antibiotics. These bacteria hang in your wound even if you take a course of common medications.

When this happens, you might end up with a wound that stays infected — even after you’ve had a course of antibiotics.

Infections in your wound keep it from healing. The bacteria on the wound’s surface prevent healthy new tissue from growing, so your wound can’t start the healing process.

As the wound goes longer without healing, it may develop a biofilm. A biofilm is a thin matrix of bacteria, fungi, and other materials that develops and attaches to the wound tissue. Biofilms cover the wound bed and make it even harder for your wound to begin healing.

When these factors are present, it’s almost impossible for a wound to close. That’s the chronic infection definition.

Wounds that won’t heal are called non-healing wounds or chronic wounds. A chronic wound can stay open for months or even years.

Over time, the tissue around chronic wounds becomes less healthy. Blood vessels stop regrowing around the wound, so healthy nutrients can’t reach the tissues as easily. Healing slows down and stops altogether.

How to Diagnose Chronic Infections

Diagnosing chronic infections is tricky. Sometimes there is so little bacteria present in the wound that it’s hard to identify whether there is any there.

With most acute wound infections, you can swab the wound with a sterile instrument and send the sample to the lab to be cultured.

The lab report, called a “Culture and Sensitivity” report, tells you what type of bacteria is present on the wound. It also informs you which antibiotics will kill it, which makes it easy to treat acute infections.

With chronic wounds, though, there isn’t always enough bacteria for this method to work. The amount of bacteria in chronic wounds is low (even though it’s enough to prevent healing). Because there’s so little, it’s hard to get enough to culture the bacteria in the lab.

That’s why chronic infections go undiagnosed for so long. You may have gone to a doctor to get treatment for chronic infections, only to have the report say that no infection is present. This leads to longer wait times for treatment and delayed healing for you.

Fortunately, there are new ways to accurately identify chronic infections. These techniques don’t rely on the old standby of growing a bacterial culture in a lab petri dish. Instead, they use cutting-edge science to identify infections that other methods miss.

You can order your own wound test kit or visit a doctor who will use a similar one. Once your chronic infection is diagnosed, you’ll be on your way to getting the treatment you need.

Treatment for Chronic Infections

Treating chronic infections as soon as possible is crucial. The longer your wound stays open, the more you’re at risk of getting another acute infection, which could turn into cellulitis or sepsis.

In addition, the longer your chronic wound lasts, the more medical supplies you’ll need to take care of it. You’ll also have to make regular visits to a clinic to have the bandage changed in a sterile environment. Healing your chronic infection will save you time, money, and risk.

But how do you get rid of chronic infections?

Wound Debridement

Wound debridement refers to removing unhealthy tissue from a wound so that healthy tissue can grow.

Debridement may involve:

  • Removing dead tissue with a sharp instrument (surgical debridement)
  • Applying a topical solution that helps break down unhealthy tissue (chemical debridement)
  • Using a sharp instrument or rough dressing to brush across the wound bed, prompting new growth (mechanical debridement)
  • Using the body’s natural enzymes to break down tissue (autolytic debridement)

Research shows that frequent debridement helps wounds with chronic infections.

Remember that chronic infections prevent healing because the bacteria cover the surface of the wound with biofilm. The biofilm layer keeps healthy tissue from growing, so no healing can happen. When a doctor removes some of the bacteria and biofilm, it gives your wound a chance to start healing again.

Not only that, but debridement jump-starts the healing process. It irritates the wound bed, which stimulates your body to start the healing process again. When you’ve had a chronic wound for years with no changes, this helps your body get back to healing.

Topical Antiseptics

You might be surprised that your doctor doesn’t prescribe you an antibiotic for your non-healing wound. Since bacteria are usually present in chronic infections, why wouldn’t you want to target them with an antibiotic?

Many chronic infections occur with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. Taking antibiotics in this case won’t work. It can actually be harmful because it encourages antibiotic resistance in bacteria.

Even if your infection isn’t antibiotic-resistant, antibiotics aren’t the best treatment choice. Many chronic wounds have reduced blood flow, so the medication doesn’t even reach the infection. This means that the antibiotics won’t be strong enough to get rid of bacteria.

Instead, the best practice is to apply a topical medication to the surface of your wound. This reduces the number of bacteria, which helps your wound start healing again. Your doctor might prescribe a daily or weekly dressing change and apply a topical antiseptic each time.

Holistic Approach: Address Underlying Causes

Most chronic wounds occur in people who have an underlying chronic disease, such as diabetes or chronic heart failure. These diseases cause problems like:

  • Reduced blood flow to feet and legs
  • Damage to blood vessels
  • Increased blood sugar, which encourages bacteria to grow in wounds
  • Edema (fluid accumulation in tissues), which prevents blood from reaching an area to heal it

Even if you treat the wound, these underlying problems persist. At best, your body will have to fight against them in order to heal your wound. At worst, they could cause more chronic infections in the future.

That’s why treatment for chronic infections should take a holistic approach. Addressing all causes of your wound and its healing problems will get you healed as quickly as possible.

Your healing plan for chronic infections should include a holistic chronic disease evaluation. With a holistically trained doctor, you can make a lifestyle plan to manage the diseases that make it hard for you to heal. This supports healing from the inside-out so that your other treatment modalities have the best chance of success.

Don’t Suffer From Chronic Infections

Chronic infections in non-healing wounds cause pain, disability, and frustration.

Even worse, you might not get help from a doctor. If you see a physician that is still using lab culture techniques for infection diagnosis, they might not be able to identify your infection.

There’s no need to keep suffering from a chronic infection. Dr. Stephen E. Fry has provided specialized microbiological care to the Greater Phoenix Area since 1992. He uses cutting-edge diagnostic techniques to target your infection and will support you holistically in your recovery.

Connect with Dr. Fry today to start your healing process.

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