Colour-changing dressing created to identify infection in burns patients

A revolutionary new colour-changing medical dressing has been developed at the University of Bath. Scientists from the Department of Chemistry, in collaboration with both the Healing Foundation Children’s Burns Research Centre in Bristol Children’s Hospital and the University of Brighton, have created an innovative dressing that changes colour when it detects infection. The new development aims to improve treatments for burns patients and help combat the growing global problem of antibiotic resistance by reducing the unnecessary use of antibiotics.

Wounds can very easily become infected if bacteria get into them. Burns or scalds can very often blister and when a blister bursts, the exposed wound may become infected if it's not kept clean. Children with burn wounds can be particularly at risk of developing an infection as they have immature immune systems. When these burn wounds get infected, the healing of the wound will slow down, which can lead to longer hospital stays as well as increased risk of permanent severe scarring.  In more severe cases this infection can lead to sepsis which can be fatal.

Existing methods for identifying infection can take up to 48 hours and require removing the wound dressing which can be incredibly painful and distressing for the patient and may result in slower healing and more severe scarring.

As identification can take such a long time, when a child with a burn shows symptoms of a possible infection, the clinician often has to treat them with antibiotics as a precaution before their infection is confirmed due to the threat it poses to their already lower immune system. This is not an ideal method of treatment as research has shown that treatment with antibiotics when there is no infection can lead to bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics. Antibiotic resistance has been identified by world leaders as one of the biggest health threats we face today.

This newly developed prototype dressing changes colour as soon as the wound is infected. This will enable doctors to quickly treat patients with an infection, without giving unnecessary antibiotics to patients who are not infected.

Dr Toby Jenkins, Reader in Biophysical Chemistry at Bath, who is leading the project, explained the development: “Our medical dressing works by releasing fluorescent dye from nano capsules triggered by the toxins secreted by disease-causing bacteria within the wound.”

“The nano capsules 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.”

“Using this dressing will allow clinicians to quickly identify infections without removing it, meaning that patients can be diagnosed and treated faster. It could really help to save lives.”

Dr Amber Young, Clinical Lead for the Healing Foundation Children’s Burns Research Centre at Bristol Children’s Hospital, who has been working on this new venture explained the significance of the development: “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.

“Being able to detect infection quickly and accurately with this wound dressing will make a real difference to the lives of thousands of young children by allowing doctors to provide the right care at the right time, and also, importantly, reduce the global threat of antibiotic resistance.”

Bacterial infections within any kind of wound should be treated with care. If you believe that you, or someone you care for, may have an infected wound, please contact your GP for an assessment.

If you have any questions regarding burns or scars, please join in the conversation via our talkscars hub.

Sources used in writing this article are available on request.

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Information written by the talkhealth team

Last revised: 18 September 2016

Next review: 18 September 2019