In spring of 2005, a debilitating leg infection confined me to bed for 3 weeks. Red and swollen, my leg felt like a piece of rotting fruit from the knee down. I had been swimming at a waterfall in northwest Benin (in West Africa) when I got a small, half-inch cut on my shin. The cut was superficial and it quickly stopped bleeding on its own. I didn’t clean it and didn’t put a band aid on it. It looked non-threatening, so I left it exposed.
A day passed and the area around the cut turned red. I remained unconcerned, figuring it was part of the healing process. The following morning, I woke up to a bulging shin. The area of redness had spread and it was now painful to walk. I knew something was wrong at this point and I went to a clinic. The doctor diagnosed it as cellulitis, a bacterial infection of the skin.
I was prescribed a cocktail of antibiotics. I spent several days on an IV. Afterwards, I took oral antibiotics and received injections twice a day. The stubborn infection persisted for 3 weeks. While I was fortunate that it did not spread past my skin, the 3 weeks were painful and frustrating and I was more or less completely immobile.
There are several reasons why I developed such a nasty infection; for one, I did nothing to clean the wound. After it stopped bleeding, I left the cut exposed and I continued swimming. Also, while the water was safe to swim in, there was almost certainly bacteria present that my body was unfamiliar with.
To avoid an experience like this, keep the following tips in mind:
- Regardless of the size of the cut, immediately clean the wound with soap and treated water. This should be a priority wherever you are, but it takes on a special urgency if you are in a tropical developing world area. You can also use hydrogen peroxide or iodine.
- If the cut is deep and/or the bleeding is persistent, get to a clinic as soon as possible as you may need sutures.
- Apply an antibiotic ointment on the wound and cover with a sterile bandage.
- Three times a day, clean and re-dress the wound with a new bandage.
- If you see any signs of infection (swelling, redness, fever or pus draining from the wound), get to a clinic immediately.
- If you are in a rural area and a clinic is not immediately accessible, you can preemptively take oral antibiotics. Make sure to see a doctor at a travel health clinic before your trip to discuss self-treatment with antibiotics and to receive a prescription for medication like ciprofloxacin.
Author: Phil Paoletta
Phil Paoletta is one of the primary contributors for Sick on the Road. Formerly a middle school teacher in Washington, DC, Phil has recently been making tracks in West Africa. You can read about his thoughts and travels at his site philintheblank.net. He also teaches people how to draw camels while showcasing and supporting social enterprises in West Africa.