Bedsores fall into one of four stages based on their severity. The National Pressure Ulcer Advisory Panel, a professional organization that promotes the prevention and treatment of pressure ulcers, defines each stage as follows:
The beginning stage of a pressure sore has the following characteristics:
- The skin is not broken.
- The skin appears red on people with lighter skin color, and the skin doesn't briefly lighten (blanch) when touched.
- On people with darker skin, the skin may show discoloration, and it doesn't blanch when touched.
- The site may be tender, painful, firm, soft, warm or cool compared with the surrounding skin.
At stage II:
- The outer layer of skin (epidermis) and part of the underlying layer of skin (dermis) is damaged or lost.
- The wound may be shallow and pinkish or red.
- The wound may look like a fluid-filled blister or a ruptured blister.
At stage III, the ulcer is a deep wound:
- The loss of skin usually exposes some fat.
- The ulcer looks crater-like.
- The bottom of the wound may have some yellowish dead tissue.
- The damage may extend beyond the primary wound below layers of healthy skin.
A stage IV ulcer shows large-scale loss of tissue:
- The wound may expose muscle, bone or tendons.
- The bottom of the wound likely contains dead tissue that's yellowish or dark and crusty.
- The damage often extends beyond the primary wound below layers of healthy skin.
A pressure ulcer is considered unstageable if its surface is covered with yellow, brown, black or dead tissue. It’s not possible to see how deep the wound is.
Deep tissue injury
A deep tissue injury may have the following characteristics:
- The skin is purple or maroon but the skin is not broken.
- A blood-filled blister is present.
- The area is painful, firm or mushy.
- The area is warm or cool compared with the surrounding skin.
- In people with darker skin, a shiny patch or a change in skin tone may develop.
Common sites of pressure sores
For people who use a wheelchair, pressure sores often occur on skin over the following sites:
- Tailbone or buttocks
- Shoulder blades and spine
- Backs of arms and legs where they rest against the chair
For people who are confined to a bed, common sites include the following:
- Back or sides of the head
- Rim of the ears
- Shoulders or shoulder blades
- Hip, lower back or tailbone
- Heels, ankles and skin behind the knees
When to see a doctor
If you notice early signs or symptoms of a pressure ulcer, change your position to relieve the pressure on the area. If you don't see improvement in 24 to 48 hours, contact your doctor. Seek immediate medical care if you show signs of infection, such as fever, drainage or a foul odor from a sore, or increased heat and redness in the surrounding skin.