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What is infection?
At its most basic definition, an infection is a disease that is caused by microorganisms. The most common infections are caused by bacteria that enter your body at a wound site. These bacteria begin to multiply, invading the surrounding tissues and releasing harmful toxins.
The symptoms that we see are not actually caused by the bacteria themselves. Rather, we see our body’s response to these bacteria. The damaged tissues send out a chemical signal that tells our body to begin the inflammatory process. This process is our body’s method of killing the invading bacteria, destroying damaged tissue, and getting us back to normal.
The first classic sign is pain, especially pain that increases when pressure is applied to the site. The process of fighting invading bacteria is not a gentle one. Your white blood cells release toxic chemicals and tissue-destroying enzymes in order to destroy foreign microorganisms and break down damaged tissues. As you might expect, the site of this battle can become very tender and sore.
Along with pain comes redness. The white blood cells are carried to the infection site by your circulatory system. This means that your body responds to the damaged area’s call for help by increasing blood flow to the site. The vast majority of cells in your blood are red blood cells, so the redness that accompanies infection is simply a visible sign of extra red blood cells at the infection site.
The third sign of infection is swelling, also known as edema. The main cause of this swelling is damage to the capillary endothelium. Capillaries are the tiniest parts of your body’s circulatory system. They are the places where your blood cells actually interact with your body tissue.
Extra fluid can become trapped at the infection site and this causes the area to swell.
As with pain, cold compresses can help to reduce swelling. It is also helpful to elevate the area, if possible, in order to promote drainage. This is especially useful when the infected site is on an extremity, such as your hand or foot.