Having An Infected Finger Can Involve More Than You Might Think

We usually don't consider an infected finger as something that requires major medical attention, and more often than not it does not, or at least should not. There are instances however where an infected finger can become a real medical emergency, requiring fast treatment to save a finger or a hand, or to fight the infection if it has spread into the bloodstream.

Since we use our fingers constantly, and for various purposes, they tend to be subject to open wounds more so than most other parts of the body, and it is perhaps a little amazing we don't suffer from a badly infected finger more often. Most of us have experienced a finger infection at one time or another, and in most of those cases little or no treatment has been necessary.

Most finger infections are caused by bacteria, and the use antibiotics is normally the treatment of choice. There are finger infections however that are viral in nature, and treatment, if required, will take on a different approach. Sometimes, a finger infection starts out as something mild and is an infection   that could be easily treated. All too often, treatment is neglected until the problem has taken on a more serious tone. There are certain types of finger infections that one should be made aware of, as several of these types of infections often require immediate medical attention.

Let's look at four different types of an infected finger one might encounter. The symptoms, the potential dangers, and methods of treatment are summarized:

  • Cellulitis – This is a primarily an infection involving the surface of the skin and its underlying tissue. There may be some redness present, and even some swelling, and the affected area may feel warm to the touch. If the wound is small, the area of infection tends to be small as well, and is easily treated with an antiseptic or antibiotic topical medication. Cellulitis seldom becomes serious unless it is neglected and the infection is allowed to spread. Oral antibiotics should be taken if the infection does not go away quickly, or if it appears to be spreading. In the latter case, it would be best to seek medical assistance as soon as possible.
  • Paronychia – This is an infection that involves the area around the fingernail, and consequently tends to be rather localized. There will usually be redness and swelling next to the fingernail, and pus and/or fluid may be seen draining from the area. The infected area will normally be quite painful to the touch. A hangnail that has been bitten or torn off, leaving an open wound, can often cause a paronychia. Like cellulitis, the main danger occurs when the infection is allowed to go untreated, and spreads to surrounding tissue. In minor cases, a topical wound care medication will generally suffice. If pus is present however, the wound may have to be drained by a doctor. If the infection has become very large, it may be necessary to remove a part of the fingernail.
  • Felon – A felon is another highly localized infection. A felon is an infected fingertip, often the result of a puncture wound, which can at times be a rather deep wound. The infection may not be painful initially, but will tend to become more so over a period of days. The pain will often be a throbbing pain, and the affected area will become painful to the touch. An infection in a fingertip seldom spreads, but that does not mean it should go untreated. Being a deep wound, it may need to be cleaned out by a physician. Once that has been accomplished, an oral antibiotic will usually be prescribed, together with instructions given for home care.
  • Deep Space Infections – Deep space infections are those found in wounds, especially puncture wounds, which reach deep into a finger or the hand. Deep space infections are potentially more serious because they are deep, and therefore are more difficult to treat. Symptoms of this type of infection may include swelling of an entire finger or a portion of the hand, and it may be painful to attempt to straighten or extend the affected finger. If pain is felt on the palm side of the finger, tendons may be involved. Deep space infections also can be dangerous because deep veins, bones, joints, muscle, or tendons can be affected. This type of infection should always be treated as an emergency. Often the wound will have to be drained and cleaned surgically, in which case a hand surgeon may be called upon because of the intricate nature of the structure of the hand.

The above examples illustrate how mild a finger infection can be in some cases, and how serious an infection could become in others. The real message however, is that no matter how unimportant an infected finger may seem to be, it should never be neglected or allowed to go untreated. The fingers and the hands are too intricate to allow an infection to spread to the muscles, tendons, or bones, not to mention the bloodstream.

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