For anyone involved with the long-term care of an older or infirm loved one, understanding how to treat and prevent bedsores can be paramount to their health and comfort. Although initially innocuous, with a lack of proper care, bedsores can become a painful, life-threatening condition for anyone who spends prolonged amounts of time at rest. Thankfully, all it takes is a little knowledge about the condition to make treatment manageable and to prevent your loved one from enduring any unnecessary suffering.
Bedsores are skin ulcers that occur due to immobility, most commonly among the elderly and bedridden. According to the University of Washington’s School of Rehabilitation Medicine, bedsores, sometimes known as “pressure sores,” usually develop on areas of the body where there is little padding, especially over bone, commonly including the lower back, shoulder blades, and hips. In some cases, it takes only a dozen hours of immobility to cause a bedsore.
They are typically the result of a reduction in blood supply to areas of skin under pressure for extended periods of time, but can also occur when friction forces the skin to move in one direction and the underlying bone in another. Additional risk factors include age, smoking, malnutrition, or pre-existing medical conditions like diabetes and dementia.
Risks and Symptoms
Bedsores are a progressive condition with four stages. In Stage I, the affected area shows up as red skin that resembles a rash and the sore may feel warm or hard to the touch. Stage I sores will heal quickly if promptly treated by removing the source of pressure. If left untreated, the sores will develop into Stage II, and become open sores that resemble blisters or abrasions. These open sores also pose a high risk for infection.
In Stage III, the sores extend through several layers of skin and begin to damage muscle tissue. Sores in Stage III are exceptionally painful, difficult to treat, and can permanently destroy tissue. Finally, in Stage IV, bedsores can do permanent damage to muscle, joints, bones, tendons, and may even be fatal. Because of the severity of later stage symptoms, prevention is crucial, and early treatment can truly be a matter of life or death.
One of the best ways to prevent a bedsore is to routinely change resting positions to help reduce the stress on the skin. For bedridden patients, it’s ideal to reposition once every two hours. For those using a wheelchair, switching seating positions at least once an hour can help relieve the additional pressure placed on the skin by remaining upright. There are also several types of specially designed bedsore aid cushions available that can help relieve pressure and reduce friction from repositioning.
Having the right positioning in bed can also reduce the risk of developing a bedsore. Legs should be supported with a cushion from the center of the calf to the ankle. It’s important to avoid applying prolonged pressure to high-risk areas like the hipbones and shoulder blades. It’s also a good idea to routinely inspect for sores, because they are much easier to treat in the early stages.
Because malnutrition increases your risk of developing a bedsore, it’s a good idea to get all the nutrients necessary for maintaining skin health. This includes vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, and zinc. Vitamin C and zinc are particularly important for their anti-inflammatory properties, and should be taken with food to prevent an upset stomach.
Treatment and Proper Bedsores Care
Once discovered, the first step to treating a sore is to keep pressure off of it to prevent it from becoming worse. It’s equally important to keep the sore clean. This will prevent infection and may increase the rate of healing. You should clean all sores at least twice a day by gently washing the affected areas with mild soap and saltwater.
For proactive treatment, you can apply aloe vera twice a day after cleaning. This may help prevent the spread of sores and moisturize any damaged skin. Skin massages have also proven an effective treatment by helping to improve blood circulation, but be sure not to massage the sores or directly apply pressure to them.
If you’re caring long-term for a loved one, unfortunately, bedsores are something you should be prepared to prevent. While you can do a great deal to provide for their comfort on your own, remember to immediately seek help from your healthcare provider if the size of a sore increases, a sore changes color or smell, or your loved one develops a fever. These changes can be signs of life-threatening conditions.
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