Dermatology

What to know about skin ulcers

A skin ulcer is an open wound that develops on the skin as a result of injury, poor circulation, or pressure.

Skin ulcers can take a very long time to heal. If left untreated, they can become infected and cause other medical complications.

These ulcers can form on any area of the skin. Depending on the type, they are especially common on the legs, mouth or lips, hips, and bottom.

This article discusses types, symptoms, diagnosis, and home remedies for skin ulcers.

What are the symptoms?

Skin ulcers look like round, open sores. They range in severity and are usually minor injuries on the skin.

In severe cases, ulcers can become deep wounds that extend through muscle tissue, leaving bones and joints exposed.

The symptoms of skin ulcers include:

  • discoloration of the skin
  • itching
  • scabbing
  • swelling of the skin near the ulcer
  • dry or flaky skin around the ulcer
  • pain or tenderness near the affected area
  • clear, bloody, or pus-filled discharge from the ulcer
  • a foul odor coming from the area
  • hair loss near the ulcer

Types of skin ulcer

People can develop the following types of skin ulcer:

Venous skin ulcers

Venous skin ulcers are shallow, open sores that develop in the skin of the lower leg as a result of poor blood circulation.

Damage to the valves inside leg veins prevents blood from returning to the heart. Instead, blood collects in the lower legs, causing them to swell. This swelling puts pressure on the skin, which can cause ulcers.

Arterial (ischemic) skin ulcers

Arterial ulcers occur when the arteries fail to deliver enough oxygen-rich blood to the lower limbs. Without a steady supply of oxygen, the tissues die and an ulcer develops.

Arterial ulcers can form on the outside of the ankle, feet, and toes.

Neuropathic skin ulcers

Neuropathic skin ulcers are a common complication of uncontrolled diabetes. Over time, elevated blood glucose levels can cause nerve damage, which results in a reduced or total loss of feeling in the hands and feet.

This condition is called neuropathy, and it occurs in approximately 60–70 percent of people with diabetes.

Neuropathic skin ulcers develop from smaller wounds, such as blisters or small cuts. A person with diabetes-associated neuropathy might not realize that they have an ulcer until it starts leaking fluid or becomes infected, in which case they may notice a distinct odor.

Bedsores or pressure ulcers

Decubitus ulcers, also called pressure sores or bedsores, occur as a result of constant pressure or friction on the skin.

Skin tissues can withstand a maximum pressure of 30–32 millimeters of mercury. Any increase in pressure beyond this range can lead to poor circulation, tissue death, and eventually ulcer formation.

If left untreated, decubitus ulcers can cause damage to tendons, ligaments, and muscles tissue.

Buruli ulcer

Buruli ulcer is a medical condition caused by the Mycobacterium ulcerans bacteria. An infection with this bacteria can form large ulcers on the arms and legs.

If left untreated, Buruli ulcer can result in permanent physical damage and disability.

Stasis dermatitis

Stasis dermatitis, or gravitational dermatitis, is a condition that causes inflammation, irritated skin, and ulcers on the legs. It is the result of fluid buildup due to poor circulation.

According to the National Eczema Association, stasis dermatitis is more common in women than men and people over the age of 50.

What causes skin ulcers?

Different skin ulcers have different underlying causes, which range from poor circulation to bacterial infections.

At first, a skin ulcer might look like mild skin irritation or a slightly discolored patch of skin. Over time, the skin tissue will begin to disintegrate, forming a shallow wound.

Diagnosis

A healthcare provider can diagnose a skin ulcer based on its appearance. They will review the person’s medical history and symptoms to determine the underlying cause before recommending treatment options.

Treatment

Dermatologist looking at patients skin to diagnose skin ulcer
A healthcare provider will determine the treatment for a skin ulcer.

Treatment for skin ulcers depends on the severity and the underlying cause of the ulcer.

A person can treat a skin ulcer at home if it is small and does not show signs of infection. Treatments for mild ulcers focus on preventing infection. Keep the ulcer clean and covered, if it is not leaking.

Signs of an infected ulcer include swelling, pain, drainage, or a foul odor. People who notice any of these symptoms require medical attention.

Treating a severe ulcer involves:

  • removing dead tissue to stimulate the healing process
  • using oral or topical antibiotics to treat any bacterial infection
  • taking pain medication to relieve discomfort

Poor circulation is a major contributing factor to skin ulcer development. Improving proper circulation can help treat and prevent ulcers.

Some ways that may improve circulation and prevent ulcers include:

Complications

If a person does not receive treatment, skin ulcers can progress into chronic wounds or dangerous infections.

Some complications of untreated skin ulcers include:

  • cellulitis, a bacterial infection affecting deep layers of skin and soft tissue
  • septicemia, or blood poisoning from a bacterial infection
  • infections in the bone of joints
  • gangrene, which is tissue death as a result of poor blood supply

Home remedies

People may be able to reduce the symptoms of mild skin ulcers and the risk of infections and complications with the following home remedies:

Turmeric

Turmeric contains curcumin, a chemical that possesses anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, and antioxidant properties. Because of the curcumin, turmeric may help heal skin wounds.

After cleaning the affected skin, try applying a generous amount of turmeric powder to the ulcer. Then cover it with a clean bandage.

Saline water

Saline solution is a sterile mixture of distilled water and salt. People can use saline solution to cleanse and remove dead skin from ulcers.

Regular saline solution contains only 0.9 percent salt, so it should not irritate the ulcer. People can buy saline solution in stores or make their own at home. Learn how to make saline solution at home here.

Honey

Honey possesses powerful antimicrobial properties, due to its high concentration of sugar and polyphenols. Results of several laboratory and clinical studies suggest that honey is effective against many bacteria associated with skin disorders.

Outlook

Skin ulcers develop as a result of poor circulation, infections, or prolonged pressure. Treating an ulcer early can reduce the risk of infection and serious complications. Infected ulcers may require draining and antibiotic treatment.

People can prevent skin ulcers by:

  • treating medical conditions that cause poor circulation, such as varicose veins, venous insufficiency, and diabetes
  • quitting smoking
  • maintaining a healthy weight
  • avoiding sitting or lying the same position for too long

A person should speak with a healthcare provider if they suspect that they have a skin ulcer, or if a wound is healing very slowly.

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