The dangers of pressure sores, pressure ulcers and bed sores

The dangers of pressure sores, pressure ulcers and bed sores

Pressure sores/ulcers and bed sores occur when pressure or friction is applied to an area of the skin over a period of time, and if left untreated, or not treated successfully – can develop into more serious problems which are difficult to cure, and in some cases infection can even prove fatal.

Elderly or frail individuals (often with thin skin) tend to be more susceptible to pressure sores (sometimes referred to as pressure ulcers or bed sores).

Pressure sores are predominantly caused by a significant lack of mobility, perhaps due to convalescing post-operative, being bed/wheelchair-bound, generally lying or sitting for too long in one position – or whether due to age or a particular medical condition that makes an individual less mobile. Common examples are clinical obesity, coronary heart disease, peripheral vascular disease, diabetes, MS, dementia or Parkinson’s.

Pressure sores can start off as being relatively innocuous, and look just like some swelling or redness, but if not diagnosed or treated, can rapidly deteriorate into a critical long term medical condition that can be difficult to heal.

Regardless of what a care home may say, most pressure sores are primarily caused by pure neglect and are avoidable. Whether the excuse is a case of too few staff looking after too many residents, or simply failing to risk assess or diagnose the problem at the outset – pressure sores are largely preventable. Spotting early warning signs, and immediate treatment are critical to their successful management.

How are pressure sores assessed?

Pressure sores are usually ssessed by reference to the ‘Waterlow Score’ – a prevention policy tool used by care homes, hospitals and health professionals alike to assess the potential risk of developing pressure sores.

The Waterlow score includes factors that might contribute to a pressure sore developing including: the person’s gender, age, build/weight for height, skin type, mobility, continence, recent weight loss, appetite, tissue malnutrition, neurological deficit (including diabetes, MS, CVA, stroke, motor/sensory, paraplegia), whether the individual has undergone surgery or trauma recently and medication (high dose steroids, cytotoxics, anti-inflammatories). The information then provides a final score.  The higher the Waterlow score, the greater the risk of pressure sores developing.

The Waterlow scores range from 0 and 49. The Waterlow score is interpreted in the following way:

  • 9 or less: Patient presents little to no risk;
  • 10 – 14: Patient is at risk;
  • 15 – 19: Patient is at high risk;
  • 20 and above: Patient is at very high risk.

How are pressure sores graded?

There are 4 grades of pressure sure, with Grade 1 being the least problematic and easiest to treat. The skin is not broken, can look discoloured or swollen, and can be treated successfully within a matter of days. As the skin breaks down and deteriorates, the grading increases, with Grade 4 being the most serious. Grade 4 is a condition where the skin is broken with extensive destruction (it looks black) and can take much longer to heal (if at all), often with complications (eg surgery) and can be fatal. The pain can be excruciating as the pressure sore can go down to muscle, tendons and bone.

So find out what the care home is doing to prevent your relative developing pressure sores?

We suggest that you check that the care home:

  • has a policy or guidelines in place to prevent and manage pressure sores;
  • will carry out a risk assessment as to skin integrity upon admission;
  • has enough capable staff to carry out ongoing risk assessments and that they will pro-actively monitor and inspect skin integrity;
  • will devise and implement a care plan, and diligently carry out and review that care plan frequently;
  • care plans identify the need for monitoring skin integrity and specify the frequency of inspections that should be carried out – those at greater risk will need more frequent monitoring; specify any devices/aids (eg special pressure relieving mattresses/cushions or lifting aids) that are required to avoid causing tears or damage to the skin; and when and how often the individual should be repositioned (eg 2 hourly etc).
  • will actually turn or reposition your relative regularly in accordance with their own risk assessment and care plan; and
  • has attentive staff who are committed to observing and constantly reviewing your relative’s skin integrity.


Most pressure sores are caused due to neglect. Failure to put basic preventative measures in place can lead to a very painful and debilitating condition if not picked up and treated successfully.

Pressure sores are often the source of litigation, as most are entirely avoidable. If your relative goes into a care home environment with no pressure sores and then develops symptoms, you have to question why – if staff were diligently caring for your relative? Consider legal advice.

For more help on pressure sores we suggest you read:

NICE Guidelines – Pressure ulcers: prevention and management

NHS Website – Treatment of Pressure ulcers (pressure sores)


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