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:
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
How are pressure sores diagnosed?
A doctor can diagnose a pressure sore by examining it.
In some cases, a doctor may want to do tests such as:
Blood tests to check for infection or to see if you are getting enough protein in your diet.
A skin and wound culture, to identify germs that may be infecting the skin or wound.
A skin biopsy, if the cause of a skin problem is unknown.
How are they treated?
Treatment focuses on
preventing a sore from getting worse and on making the skin healthy again.
These steps can help a pressure sore heal:
Take pressure off the area. Change positions often. Spread body weight evenly with special mattresses, pads, or other
Keep the sore clean and covered with a bandage. The doctor will tell you what type of bandage to use. You will probably be told to keep the wound a little moist and not let it dry out between bandage changes.
Keep the healthy tissue around a pressure sore clean and
Eat a healthy diet with enough protein to help the skin
To promote healing, your doctor may remove dead tissue from the wound. Bacteria can grow in dead tissue and cause infection. If you get an infection, you may need antibiotics.
Severe pressure sores may be treated with
surgery. For example, a skin graft may be done to help new skin grow at the site of a sore.
How can you prevent pressure sores?
There are many things you can do to help prevent pressure sores if you're at risk. It's also important to use these steps to help an existing sore heal. If you can't do them yourself, ask a family member or friend for help.
Change position often
In a bed, change position every 2 hours. Learn how to move yourself so that you avoid folding and twisting your skin.
In a wheelchair or other type of chair, shift your weight every 15 minutes.
Try not to slide or slump across sheets in a chair or bed. Recliner chairs are likely to allow slipping, so do not sleep in a recliner.
Take good care of your skin
Keep your skin clean and free of sweat, urine, and feces. Wash with gentle soap and warm (not hot) water. Don't scrub the skin too hard.
If you have problems with bowel or bladder control, clean the skin right away. Use a barrier cream or lotion to protect your skin from moisture.
If you have dry skin, use moisturizing cream or lotion to keep your skin from drying out and cracking.
Know what pressure sores look like, and check your skin every day. Pay special attention to bony areas, such as the hips, elbows, knees, and heels. Also check places where the skin folds over itself. Have someone else look at areas you can't see.
Make healthy choices
Eat healthy foods with enough protein, and get plenty of fluids. That can help damaged skin heal and help new skin grow.
Stay at a healthy weight. Both weight gain and weight loss can make pressure sores more likely.
Don't smoke. Smoking dries the skin and reduces its blood supply.
Talk to your doctor about pressure-relieving cushions and pads
There are special pads to put on top of a mattress to help it fit your body's shape better. And there are cushions that can reduce pressure on certain areas of the body.
Ask your doctor which cushions and pads might help you. Some products, such as doughnut-type devices, may actually cause pressure sores or make them worse.
Baranoski S, et al. (2012). Wound treatment options. In S Baranoski, EA Ayello, eds., Wound Care Essentials: Practice Principles, 3rd ed., pp. 181–239. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
European Pressure Ulcer Advisory Panel and National Pressure Ulcer
Advisory Panel (2009). Prevention and Treatment of Pressure Ulcers: Quick Reference
Guide. Washington DC: National Pressure Ulcer Advisory Panel.
Ho CH, Bogie K (2010). Pressure ulcers. In WR Frontera et
al., eds., DeLisa's Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation: Principles and Practice, 5th ed., vol. 2, pp. 1393–1409. Philadelphia: Lippincott
Williams and Wilkins.
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy for refractory wounds (2010). Medical Letter on Drugs and Therapeutics, 52(1333): 19–20.
Powers JG, et al. (2012). Decubitus (pressure)
ulcers. In LA Goldsmith et al., eds., Fitzpatrick's Dermatology in General Medicine, 8th ed., vol. 1, pp. 1121–1129. New York:
Ratliff CR, et al. (2010). Guideline for Prevention and Management of Pressure Ulcers. Mount Laurel, NJ: Wound Ostomy and Continence Nurses Society.
Reddy M (2011). Pressure ulcers, search
date June 2010. BMJ Clinical Evidence. Available online:
Reddy M, et al. (2006). Preventing pressure ulcers: A
systematic review. JAMA, 296(8): 974–984.
Reddy M, et al. (2008). Treatment of pressure ulcers: A systematic review. JAMA, 300(22): 2647–2662.
Primary Medical Reviewer
E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer
Margaret Doucette, DO - Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Wound Care, Hyperbaric Medicine
How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.