Wound Infection Signs and Symptoms

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If you’re like me, you like exploring the wilderness.

I can spend days in the field, enjoying nature.

But nature is not a sterile lab.

There are sharp things everywhere, and they harbor bacteria.

Some of that bacteria is harmful, pathogenic.

I’ve accidentally cut myself in the woods and I’m sure you have too.

That cut provides an entrance for bacteria into your body.

Even a tiny splinter can lead to an infection.

The Importance of Catching Infection Quickly

Generally, your body can fight off invading bacteria with ease.

Infection Symptom Pathogen Bacteria Microscope
Though tiny, pathogenic bacteria can cause large problems!

Also called pathogens, these are trying to attack you all the time.

But your body’s immune system is at the ready and keeps them out.

But if the bacteria can get past these defenses and you develop an infection, bad stuff can happen.

First of all, your wound will not heal while there’s an infection.

Infections spread.

If they spread through muscle, they can kill off your limbs.

If they spread to your organs, they can cause those organs to fail.

If they reach your heart or brain, it’s game over.

Infection Microscope Lymphocyte Immune System White Blood Cell
A lymphocyte, also called a “natural killer cell,” part of your body’s immune system

The earlier you catch the infection, the easier it is to squelch the bacteria.

But if you wait too long, it can be extremely difficult to fight off the pathogens.

The best thing to do is go to your doctor, but we know that sometimes you can’t get to medical care in time.

That’s why we have some knowledge on how to deal with an infected wound by yourself.

Not all infections are in your skin! Some bacteria can infect your teeth as well, in which case the signs may be different.

Look out for the following symptoms and you should be able to stop an infection before it can cause problems.

Related: Camp Hygiene: How to Stay Clean in the Woods


One of the first symptoms of an infected wound is malaise.

This is a general feeling of being unwell, physically and sometimes mentally.

You’ll feel drained and weak.

This is because your body is trying to divert resources toward fighting the infection.

However, this symptom is not limited to infections.

Malaise can also come from a heart attack, internal bleeding, or just being unrested and poorly fed.

Colored or Foul Drainage

An easy physical sign of infection is the color of the fluid draining from the wound, also called exudate.

Identify Infection Wound Sign Symptom Exudate Foul Drainage Bad Smell Hold Nose
If smelling your wound makes you hold your nose, it’s most likely infected

Think of the fluid as your body’s waste from rebuilding the flesh at the cut, kind of like empty tubes of glue.

If it’s clear, white, or slightly yellow, this is normal. Your body is doing fine.

Your flesh is being knitted together and the glue bottles are being thrown out.

Pink is okay too. There’s some blood in the drainage, but that’s okay.

However, if the fluid is another color, this may be a sign of an infection.

Gray, green, brown, or yellow fluid is often a sign of infection.

Chances are that color is from bacteria in the wound. Not always, though.

Foul-smelling fluid is almost always a sign of infection.

Even if the exudate is clear, if it smells bad, that most likely means infection.


One of the ways your body deals with infections pathogens is to turn the heat up.

A fever is your body’s way of burning out the infection.

The number to watch out for is 101 degrees Fahrenheit.

If your fever gets that high, chances are you need to help it fight off the invaders.

Redness, Swelling, and Heat

Inflammation Pain Painkiller Ibuprofen NSAID for wounds and infections
NSAID painkillers such as Ibuprofen can be used to combat both pain and inflammation

These are technically three different signs, but they have the same cause.


Think of inflammation as a fever in a specific part of your body.

Your skin may turn red and it may swell up.

When inflammation gets extreme enough, you can feel the heat just by touching the area around the wound.

This signifies an infection that may be too much for your body’s immune system.

Increasing Pain

Most of the time, as your body heals, your nerves calm down and you feel less pain.

However, an infection may cause the opposite.

Instead of less pain, you feel more pain in the area over time.

Painkillers can mask this symptom somewhat, but if you need to use more painkillers for the same effect, you likely have an infection.

Red Streak Towards Heart

This final symptom is one of the most important.

Infected Wound Signs Symptoms Red Streak Toward Heart Sepsis
An example of such a red streak by James Heilman, MD [CC BY-SA 3.0]
If you see redness that goes from the wound up your limp toward your heart, the infection has spread to a place it really shouldn’t go.

It’s either in the blood vessels or in your lymph nodes.

Either way, your body has almost lost the fight.

Now more than ever is the time for emergency care.


Cuts and other open wounds allow bacteria to get under your skin, where they cause infections.

Your best bet is to get a doctor to treat your infection, though there are things you can do without one to help fight it off.

However, you have to catch the infection first.

Pay attention to the signs above and you’ll be able to catch it early.

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