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Pressure Sores - Topic Overview

What are pressure sores?

A pressure sore is an injury to the skin caused by constant pressure. This often occurs when a person lies in bed or sits in a chair for a long time. Pressure reduces blood supply to the skin. Over time, this can cause the skin to break down and form an open sore. Pressure sores are also called bed sores or pressure ulcers.

Pressure sores can range from red areas on the surface of the skin to severe tissue damage that goes deep into muscle and bone. They usually form over bony areas such as the hips, lower back, elbows, and heels. They may also occur in places where the skin folds over itself or where medical equipment puts pressure on the skin, such as where oxygen tubing presses on the ears or cheeks.

Pressure sores can be hard to treat and slow to heal. If they don't heal properly, they can lead to problems such as skin infection or bone infection.

If you or someone you care for is not able to move much, it's important to prevent sores and to check the skin every day. If you think a pressure sore is forming, take steps to treat it, and talk to your doctor or nurse about what more you can do.

What causes pressure sores?

Things that cause pressure sores include:

  • Pressure on the skin and tissues. This is the most common cause.
  • Sliding down in a bed or chair, which can cause the skin to fold over itself (shear force).
  • Being pulled across bed sheets or other surfaces, which can cause friction burns.
  • Excess moisture, such as from sweat, urine, or feces. Skin that is often wet is more likely to break down and form pressure sores.

What increases the risk of getting pressure sores?

Things that make a person more likely to get pressure sores include:

  • Not being able to move easily. This often happens because of a spinal injury, paralysis, coma, or surgery.
  • Poor bladder or bowel control.
  • Poor nutrition. A diet that doesn't have enough protein can lead to unhealthy skin and slow healing.
  • Decreased alertness, which may be due to a health problem or taking certain medicines. People who are not alert may not take the steps to prevent pressure sores or understand why prevention is important.
  • Aging. As people age, their skin becomes thinner, drier, and less elastic, so it is more easily injured.
  • Smoking. Smoking dries out the skin and reduces blood flow to the skin.
  • Having a health problem that interferes with healing, such as diabetes.

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