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Dealing with pressure sores (sore skin)

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This page is about pressure sores. There is information about


What pressure sores are

Pressure sores are wounds that develop when constant pressure or friction on one area of the body damages the skin. Constant pressure on an area of skin stops blood flowing normally, so the cells die and the skin breaks down. Other names for pressure sores are bedsores, pressure ulcers and decubitus ulcers.


Causes of pressure sores

Pressure sores happen if you can’t move around and so stay in one position for a long time. We normally move about constantly, even in our sleep. This stops pressure sores developing.

People who are unable to move around tend to put pressure on the same areas of the body for a long time. If you are ill, bedridden or in a wheelchair, you are at risk of getting pressure sores.

A number of things can increase your risk of pressure sores, including

  • being unable to move around easily due to old age or illness
  • weight loss - you may have less padding over bony areas
  • sliding down in a bed or chair - pressure on the skin cuts off blood supply because the skin is being pulled in different directions (called shearing)
  • friction or rubbing of the skin, for example against sheets
  • a poor diet
  • lack of fluid (dehydration)
  • moist skin - for example, due to sweating or incontinence
  • other medical conditions, such as diabetes



Preventing pressure sores

It is much better to prevent pressure sores than to treat them once they have happened. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), Healthcare Improvement Scotland and the European Pressure Ulcer Advisory Panel (EPUAP) have guidelines on pressure sores. They all recommend that a member of the health care team looking after you should assess your risk of developing pressure sores and create a plan to prevent them. 

The areas of skin most at risk of getting sore depends on whether you are lying down or sitting. The following diagrams show the areas most at risk.





The following tips can help in trying to prevent pressure sores.

Tips on relieving direct pressure

  • Change position and keep moving as much as possible.
  • Stand up to relieve pressure if you can.
  • Ask your carer to reposition you regularly if you can't move. 
  • Change position at least every 2 hours.
  • Use special pressure relieving mattresses and cushions.
  • Don't drag your heels or elbows when moving in your bed or chair.

Skin care

  • Keep your skin clean and dry.
  • Avoid scented soaps as they can be more drying.
  • Moisturise your skin thoroughly after washing.
  • Avoid using talcum powder as this dries the skins natural oils.
  • Keep your skin well moisturised. 

General tips

  • Make sure the bedsheets are smooth and not wrinkled when you are lying in bed.
  • Sheets should be cotton or silk like fabric. 
  • Eat a well balanced diet.
  • Have at least 2 litres of fluid a day.
  • Tell your doctor or nurse if you notice any skin changes or discomfort as soon as possible.

Treating pressure sores

In some people, the skin breaks down and creates a wound. There is then a risk that the wound can get infected. This can be a serious problem. It is very important to treat infections quickly.

If you develop a pressure sore, it is important that a nurse or doctor examines you. District nurses can visit and advise you how to look after your skin if you are at home. In hospitals, specialist nurses known as tissue viability nurses have training in treating pressure sores. They can advise on the best treatment for you.

It can take a long time for pressure sores to heal.

Signs to look out for include

  • purplish or bluish patches on dark skinned people
  • red or white patches on fair skinned people
  • blisters
  • swelling
  • shiny areas
  • dry patches
  • cracks and wrinkles

Tell your nurse or doctor straight away if you notice any of these skin changes. Assessing the skin as early as possible will help prevent pressure sores. 

Relieving the pressure

If you develop a pressure sore, it is vital to relieve pressure on the area at least every 2 hours. The best way to do this is by not lying or sitting on that area of skin at all. A few studies have looked at a special bed to relieve pressure. The bed contains a mixture of air and fluid. Researchers found that pressure sores became smaller after 2 weeks using this type of bed.

Other types of specialist mattress are available but there is less research to say how helpful they are. These include waterbeds, inflatable mattresses and ripple mattresses. NICE guidelines on treating pressure ulcers recommend that you should have a more sophisticated mattress if your skin has broken down. For example, a continuous low pressure system or an alternating pressure system. Your district nurse can assess your skin and order you a special mattress if you are at home.

Dressings for pressure sores

If your skin has broken down you may need to have a dressing on it. The dressing protects the area, keeps it clean and moist and helps it to heal.

There are different types of dressings, the one you need will depend on your wound. 

  • Alginate dressings, made from seaweed.
  • Clear film dressings, like medical cling film.
  • Hydrocolloids - gels put on to the wound that soak up fluid.
  • Hydrogel - a gel that keeps wounds moist and helps to clean them.
  • Foam dressings that absorb fluid from the wound.
  • Honey dressings.
  • Silver dressings.

Your nurse will assess your pressure sore to decide which dressing is best for you, change it as needed and monitor how well it is working.

Surgery for pressure sores

If there is some dead tissue around the sore, it can slow healing. You may have to have any dead cells removed to help it heal. This is called debridement. It can be done in different ways.

Your nurse may be able to remove the dead tissue when cleaning your wound and changing the dressing. Some of the dressings may help to remove it but sometimes a specialist tissue viability nurse needs to cut dead areas away. Usually you can have this done at home or at your GP surgery. More rarely, when the sore is deeper you may need to have an operation in hospital to remove the dead cells and clean the wound.

Other treatments

Other treatments may help but we need more research about them. They include

  • diet changes and supplements
  • suction treatment to remove excess fluid from the wound
  • electrical therapy - a small amount of electricity stimulates the cells and helps healing
  • ultrasound
  • laser treatment, which uses light to help repair the wound
  • sterile maggots (larvae) are very good at removing dead cells and cleaning the wound
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Updated: 12 May 2016