By Corrie Dinwiddie, RN
Oxford HealthCare Wound Coordinator
The skin is the largest organ of the human body. According to the online journal LiveScience.com, the average person’s skin counts for 16 percent of their total weight, and spans a surface area of 22 square feet. It is also one of the most important organs for our general health, helping to:
- Maintain your body temperature
- Protect you from germs
- Gather information for your nervous system
- Assess and react to your surroundings (e.g. heat, cold, pain, sensory touch)
To function properly, your skin needs adequate attention and proper care. A break-down in your overall skin health can put you at risk for injury and disease.
Possible Skin Problems
Even if you have healthy skin, problems may occur if you are immobile for long periods of time, especially in a lying or sitting position. When this happens, pressure from your body weight on the bed or chair surface cuts off the blood supply to skin. As a result, those skin cells don’t get the oxygen and nutrients they need to survive, and a pressure ulcer may result.
The condition mainly occurs on skin areas that cover a bone or bulge, such as heels, shoulders, hips, and upper buttocks. Pressure ulcers have many names, including:
- Bedsore Decubitus (de-KU-bi-tus) ulcers
- Dermal wounds
- Pressure sores
Risk Factors for a Pressure Ulcer
You may be at risk for a pressure ulcer if you are experiencing:
- Limited activity or confined to bed
- Reduced tactile sensation (sense of touch)
- Chronic, complicated medical problems such as diabetes, obesity, smoking, poor circulation, and spinal cord injury
- Increased skin moisture from bladder or bowel control issues
- Poor diet or nutrition Low protein intake, especially if nutrition is already poor
Older adults are more at risk for a pressure ulcer, as are patients who slide down in the bed. Sliding down can cause friction that may tear delicate or already damaged skin.
Symptoms of a Pressure Ulcer
If you have a pressure ulcer, you may have burning, aching, or itching at the site. The injured skin may be red or bruised, or have a purplish discoloration that continues even after you shift position. People with darker skin tones may not show redness or discoloration, and some may need to compare the injured area with uninjured skin tissue.
A pressure ulcer may feel firm or mushy, and may be warm to the touch. Swelling and tenderness are common, and a blister or shallow sore may develop. Sometimes a clear or blood-tinged fluid may drain from the ulcer area. If un-noticed or un-treated, the wound may deepen and extend into the fat layer or adipose (ADD-ih-pose) tissue, or even down to the bone. Pressure ulcers are sometimes categorized in stages (Stage I, Stage II, etc.), based on how deeply the tissue is injured.
What Can You Do to Help Prevent a Pressure Ulcer?
You and your family members are important to the prevention and care of a pressure ulcer. Your skin health can be improved when general steps are taken, including:
- Not smoking
- Daily exercise (even bedridden patients need activity)
- Good nutrition
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Adequate hygiene
- Moving and turning
- Asking your family or caregiver to help you move and turn if you are confined to a bed or chair
How Do Hospitals and Nursing Homes Prevent Pressure Ulcers?
Your nurses and doctors will begin a plan of care to help keep your skin healthy. If you are not able to move yourself, the hospital or nursing home staff will help you move and turn. They may use special skin care products to protect your skin, and connect you with a dietitian to help you improve your diet. If your nurse or doctor suspects an ulcer, he or she will work to relieve pressure on the area. In some cases, a special mattress or bed may be used to help redistribute pressure.
Even though your skin is one of the most complex and important organs in your body, caring for it is not complicated. Follow these simple steps, and ask your doctor if you have further concerns about potential pressure ulcers.