Burn wounds are a relatively common affliction. Alongside the obvious suffering that a wound of this nature can cause, infections can be a life-threatening problem.

[Innovative burn care]Share on Pinterest
Burn covering that changes color in response to infection is now being trialled.
Image credit: University of Bath

Infections are the primary cause of complications in burn injuries, especially in children. This is partly due to a child’s immature and less aggressive immune system.

Significant thermal injuries can also induce a state of immunosuppression, further increasing the chances of infection.

Even a relatively mild hot water scald can readily become infected.

Many deaths from burn injuries are due to sepsis, and even milder infections can prolong hospital stays. The likelihood of permanent scarring also increases with infection.

Diagnosing a bacterial infection in young burn patients can be troublesome. The area around a burn wound may be red and inflamed, symptoms that normally indicate an infection; this makes a direct sample of the area essential for clarity.

The young patient’s discomfort must also be considered. Removing the wound covering is an unpleasant procedure, and interference with the injury can lead to slower healing times.

Currently, it takes around 48 hours to definitively diagnose an infected burn. Dr. Amber Young is involved in ongoing clinical trials of this new early warning system for burn infections.

She says:

Children are at particular risk of serious infection from even a small burn. However, with current methods clinicians can’t tell whether a sick child might have a raised temperature due to a serious bacterial burn wound infection, or just from a simple cough or cold.”

Because of the time delay in diagnosing an infection, and the desire to remove the invaders before they dig their heels in, antibiotics are often prescribed preventively. This has its own drawbacks. Antibiotic resistance is a genuine concern throughout medical institutions worldwide.

Researchers at the University of Bath, in conjunction with the Healing Foundation Children’s Burns Research Centre and the University of Brighton – all in the UK – have created a groundbreaking solution to these serious issues.

The team has developed a prototype dressing that changes color when a wound becomes infected. The wound dressing on an uninfected area displays a discrete circular design:

[Burn care innovation]

Image credit: University of Bath

Within four hours of an infection, the color and pattern change:

[Innovative burn care]

Image credit: University of Bath

Dr. Toby Jenkins, project leader says:

Our medical dressing works by releasing fluorescent dye from nanocapsules triggered by the toxins secreted by disease-causing bacteria within the wound.

The nanocapsules mimic skin cells in that they only break open when toxic bacteria are present; they aren’t affected by the harmless bacteria that normally live on healthy skin.”

Research has shown that bacteria infecting a wound tend to congregate in biofilms. These films consist of mutually attached bacteria, coated in polymer.

Within their exopolysaccharide cocoons, bacteria are afforded some protection from attack by antibiotics and the patient’s natural immune system.

This ground-breaking, chameleon-like Band-Aid works by detecting these biofilms. The dressing is made of a hydrated agarose film that contains the tiny capsules of colored dye. These capsules are “trained” to specifically recognize Escherichia coli, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Staphylococcus aureus and Enterococcus faecalis.

The team found that the color change response is stronger for bacterial strains that are considered to produce good biofilms. This could lend itself to an even more specific indicator in the future. The system might indicate not only whether there is an infection, but also what specific type of bacteria is present.

The experimental wound dressing is in the early phases of development but is soon to be tested on real patients.

An innovation that can save lives, money and assist in the global problem of antibiotic resistance is a literal game-changer. Medical News Today recently covered research into an antimicrobial biofilm designed to protect implants from infection.