Surviving an injury isn't just about living through the initial event.
Infection is, and always has been, a serious complication when it comes to being injured. An untreated infection could easily take the life of a patient. Which is why taking proper care of the wound all throughout the healing process is so important.
(Note: This post is not meant to act as medical advice. It is for writers to use to add realism to their work. If you have an issue that requires medical attention seek a medical professional.)
INFECTIONS OF THE PAST
The past hasn't always looked at infection constructively.
During the dark ages, Doctors turned to the pseudo-science of bloodletting and leaching to rid the body of "bad humors".
Many people died as a result. Because, while germs do travel through the bloodstream, everything else (our oxygen, our nutrients, and even the blood cells needed to fight infection) does too.
Interestingly enough, this showed that those Doctors at least had a general idea of what was going on with infection, though their solution left a lot to be desired.
They also turned to other, much less scientific methods to "cure" diseases. Including rubbing actual feces onto wounds and plague boils. The exact opposite of what they should have done.
Fortunately, modern medicine has given us much more insight into bacteria which allows us to avoid infection or at least battle it effectively.
THE CAUSE OF INFECTION
There are many kinds of infections. In fact, any illness we get can technically be called an infection.
But for the purpose of this post, there are two types of infection; skin infections and blood infections, that we will be focusing on.
A skin infection is the kind people most likely think about when they hear the word "infection".
It is the red irritated itch that accompanies a cut that wasn't kept clean.
A blood infection is much more serious. It happens when a skin infection or surgery introduces bacteria into the bloodstream. (There are other ways for people to develop sepsis, but we'll just be focusing on how wounds can lead to it in today's post.)
Also known as Sepsis, a blood infection can quickly lead to Septic Shock and death.
Bacteria serve an important role in God's design. They break down dead flesh as part of God's natural clean up process when creatures die. Unfortunately, they get a little overzealous and will start to eat up living tissue as well.
This is why all cuts get a little infected. After all, bacteria are everywhere. There is simply no way to keep a cut clean twenty-four seven while it heals. Luckily our bodies come equipped with a God-given defense system as well, in the form of our immune system.
Most infections are beaten back before they ever become a threat to our lives as our blood cells get rid of the bacteria.
Sometimes, however, an infection is too much for our immune systems to handle. In these cases, they multiply and spread into the surrounding skin and eventually if left untreated the blood and organs.
Keeping any wound clean, no matter how small, is the first step in preventing infection. Even the smallest cut can introduce bacteria into the body that can lead to death.
In the past, alcohol was used to clean wounds and was very effective. And why not? It is a poison, after all.
Another method was to burn the flesh through cauterization, though this was usually reserved for more severe wounds. It served two purposes, cleaning the wound and sealing the opening to prevent deadly amounts of blood loss.
But the initial cleaning isn't all there is to prevent a wound from being infected.
The caregiver then has to keep it clean, while still giving it the time un-touched it needs to heal.
This is where bandages come in.
Covering the wound with a clean cloth provides it a defensive layer of sorts to stave off bacteria. If they can't reach the wound, the bacteria can't grow there.
However, often this all only keeps bacteria from having free reign over the wound. Often times, some still manage to get at the opening and cause mild infection.
The immune system does its job well, but it sometimes needs help.
So, we turn to medication
MEDICINE OLD AND NEW
Those who dedicate their lives to healing others are amazing people.
And while it's true that there were times when the practices of doctors and scientists weren't always correct, by and large, the efforts they have made have likely saved thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of lives.
In modern medicine, we have many kinds of antibiotics and understand them well enough to apply them in a myriad of ways to many different bacterial infections.
However, the manufacturing and large-scale distribution of antibiotics is a fairly new development. The world didn't try to mass produce penicillin until World War II was well underway.
That doesn't mean that people were ignorant of it though. The "scientific discovery" of penicillin happened years before the start of world war II. And, believe it or not, there is evidence that penicillin was used back in ancient times in its more natural form, mold. They didn't have the same ability to extract it back then, so they'd often simply take the mold and place it on top of the wound as a poultice. This was somewhat effective. Unfortunately, the mold is only useful during a certain part of its growth, so there was no way of knowing how much of it was useful medicine with this method before application.
But that didn't stop them from trying. And really, there is no way to know for sure that even better medication didn't exist before that. So much information has been lost to time.
What we do know, is that infection is a killer, and people have always been fighting it off. (I think this is worth noting because those who write fantasy or sci-fi can create their own methods of healing and it would reflect reality perfectly.)
THOSE AT RISK
Anyone can suffer from an infection if their wound is not cared for properly, but there are those who have a higher risk of developing them.
Anyone with an already compromised immune system such as; the very young, the very old, those who are already sick, or people with autoimmune deficiencies (HIV, diabetes, etc.), are at a much higher risk than a healthy young man or woman.
SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS OF INFECTION
Redness around an open wound accompanied by an itch is often the first sign of infection. This redness will grow outward from the center of the wound as the infection spreads. The itch will morph into pain and swelling.
As the infection progresses the wound will start producing yellow/green pus or a cloudy foul-smelling discharge. This smell of rot is a sure sign of infection. Our flesh shouldn't be rotting when still attached to the body, after all.
The body then creates a fever to try and kill off the bacteria. The fever will be concentrated around the wound itself in the early stages.
If the fever is unsuccessful the infection will continue to spread until it reaches the bloodstream.
SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS OF SEPSIS
Red streaks spreading from the wound are a sign that the infection has reached the bloodstream.
Other symptoms include:
Rapid breathing and pulse.
Nausea and vomiting.
Diarrhea and peeing less than normal.
The fever will grow but the patient will experience chills.
And eventually, a very low body temperature. This does not indicate that the patient is getting better. It indicates he or she is dying.
All throughout history scientists and doctors have been experimenting and searching for better ways to care for wounds. This has accumulated in our modern day understanding of bacteria, infection, and care for patients. And they will continue to do so. Who knows? Maybe we'll see an end to all infection some day.
The above post covers only the most basic information about infection. So, if you know any new facts or interesting information about the topic, feel free to share in the comments. Or if you have any personal stories about infection, I'd love to hear about it!
Thanks for joining me this week! Next month I'll be doing another "Would Your Character Survive That" post on the topic of hypothermia. So, if you enjoy this series, be sure to hit that like button and let me now.