Risks of gardening with an open wound

Woman putting on garden gloves

Whether cultivating a perfect patch of yard to impress the neighbors or keeping temperamental indoor plants alive, gardening is a popular pastime with significant mental health benefits.

Unfortunately, there are potential dangers lurking in the soil. Without adequately protecting any cuts or wounds you’ve recently incurred, however minor they may seem, gardening can lead to serious infection.

Practical tips and tricks to avoid infection from gardening

If you have a known open wound on your hand or forearm, try to avoid situations where it could be easily contaminated by the soil you’re handling.

Start by covering any existing wounds with bandages or clothing, and help protect against new wounds to the hands and wrists by wearing long gardening gloves. While working with plants and soil, a stool, bench, or other cushion for kneeling can also help you avoid working in direct contact with potential contaminants.

If you do suffer a new wound or an old wound gets dirty, wash it thoroughly with soap and water, make sure your most recent tetanus shot happened within the last five years, and monitor the wound for signs of infection. If you develop any skin changes, signs of infection, or otherwise poor healing, see your primary care physician and be sure to mention that you were gardening before the onset of your symptoms.

Primary types of infections and how to identify them

A common local wound infection is caused by bacteria such as e. coli, s. aureus, or pseudomonas aeruginosa and develops within one to five days after exposure. These infections are characterized by redness, swelling and pain in the skin. Bacteria can even cause infections through microscopic breaks in the skin you may not even have known were there. When this happens, we call it cellulitis. Your primary care provider can typically treat these local infections, but if you experience fever, nausea and lightheadedness, seek medical evaluation as soon as possible, because these symptoms may point to a more advanced infection.

Sporotrichosis is a fungal infection that is rarely fatal but can develop into a chronic condition. Days to weeks after contact, a bump appears and becomes an ulcer. There may be some natural drainage, but it is not usually full of pus. Before long, more skin lesions begin to form up the arm or leg along the lymphatic channel. Usually there is only mild pain associated with the infection.

Legionella is most frequently known as the bacteria that causes pneumonia through airborne contaminated water. But some species in this genus are also common in soil and can cause pneumonia by hand-to-mouth transmission or inhalation of the bacteria as the soil is turned and sends up dust and other particles. Cough, fever, and diarrhea are common symptoms.

Botulism is rarely fatal but can result in temporary paralysis requiring prolonged, expensive hospital stays. In 2016, 205 cases were reported to the CDC. Double vision, difficulty speaking and difficulty swallowing are common symptoms that patients notice.

Tetanus is the most dangerous of these infections and is characterized by uncontrollable, intense muscle spasms. Classically, but not always, some of the first affected muscles are those that close the jaw, giving the infection the nickname “lockjaw.” The typical incubation period is eight days, but some reported cases have emerged up to three weeks after exposure.

The benefits of having an updated tetanus vaccine

Because of the low overall occurrence of tetanus, it can be difficult to study the true efficacy of the vaccine. But several studies and related statistics demonstrate that the tetanus vaccine is almost always protective.

After a 3-dose series of the tetanus vaccine, nearly 100% of people achieve levels sufficient to prevent infection. Since the vaccine’s introduction, the rate of tetanus in the U.S. has fallen by 95%. Of the 233 cases in the early 2000s, only 3% of cases occurred in people who had received a tetanus vaccine in the previous 10 years.

Protection from the vaccine decreases over time, so the CDC recommends getting a routine tetanus shot every 10 years. That being said, if you suffer a high-risk wound (and soil contamination counts as high-risk), the CDC recommends receiving a tetanus vaccine if your most recent vaccine is more than five years old.

At the end of the day, it only takes a small scratch on your hand to pick up a potentially dangerous infection. Fortunately, it only takes a bar of soap and a basic pair of gardening gloves to protect yourself. Incorporating a few precautions into your routine will keep you safe and healthy to garden for many growing seasons to come.

Tetanus up-to-date?

A visit with your primary care provider can check your overall health and ensure your routine vaccinations are up-to-date.

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