Taking care of your skin
Taking care of the skin over the affected area is important as it may help to reduce the risk of getting an infection.
Whether you bath, shower or strip-wash, the swollen area should be washed thoroughly each day. Take care not to have the water too hot as this will increase the blood supply and may make the swelling worse.
Most people are good at washing hands, but it's also important to dry thoroughly between your fingers and under rings. Feet are more difficult to reach. If it's a problem, ask someone to wash and dry between your toes. There are some aids available to help out, if necessary, so please ask.
Fungal infections, such as athlete's foot, commonly occur between the toes. These should be treated as soon as possible.
Other areas that may need special attention when washing and drying are:
- Under the breasts
- Behind the ears
- In the groin and genital area
- Any other deep creases which may have been caused by swelling, or scars from an operation.
Stretched skin can become dry and cracked, making it prone to infection. Using a simple moisturiser daily to keep the skin supple can help to prevent this. Choose an unperfumed cream or lotion as highly perfumed ones can sometimes cause irritation.
Infection can cause further scarring of the tissues, worsen the swelling and make your lymphoedema more difficult to treat. Try to avoid cuts and scratches. If they do occur, wash the area thoroughly and apply a simple antiseptic cream or lotion. If a cut is deeper and needs to be covered, use the minimum of tape to secure a dressing.
If you notice any redness of the area or it's slow to heal, contact your family doctor as soon as possible. You may need some antibiotics if you have developed an infection. If a swollen area becomes hot, red and painful, you may have developed cellulitis. You may also develop flu-like symptoms and feel quite unwell. Usually all the symptoms get better if you have a course of penicillin lasting at least two weeks.
Antibiotics must be given straight away. Contact your family doctor and ask for a house call rather than wait for an appointment at the surgery. Rest and elevate the affected part of your body and do not use your compression garment until the cellulitis has got better. You can take pain relief such as paracetamol for discomfort.
Some people develop cellulitis repeatedly with no apparent cause – no cuts or bites can be seen. If this happens and you have two episodes in a year, you may be offered preventative (prophylactic) antibiotics. A low dose will be prescribed for one year or longer. Always make sure you have enough antibiotics whenever you are away from home, especially if you travel abroad on holiday.
How to help yourself
Try to avoid things that could lead to an infection:
- Injections or infusions (drips) into the swollen area.
- Having blood taken from the swollen limb (or giving blood, if you are a donor)
- Cuts and grazes
- Insect bites or stings
- Scratches or bites from pets
- Non-essential operations on the swollen area
- Acupuncture in areas where swelling is present.
Try to avoid changes in temperature, which could lead to an increase in swelling:
- Very hot or cold baths and showers
- Direct contact with ice and snow
- Deep tissue massage in areas where swelling is present.
Try to avoid constriction of the swollen area, which can further reduce the drainage of lymph:
- Having your blood pressure taken repeatedly on a swollen arm
- Tight clothing
- Tight jewellery, such as rings, bracelets, watches.
You can take some simple precautions to prevent those problems when going about your daily routine.
- Take care when cutting or filing the nails on your affected limb. If you have difficulty with this, arrange to see a manicurist or chiropodist.
- Use an insect repellent if you are prone to bites, especially during the summer. Always make sure your pets are free from fleas.
- Use an electric shaver to remove unwanted hair – depilatory creams can cause irritation and razors can nick the skin. Epilators, electrolysis, waxing and laser can all damage the skin.
If your arm is affected:
- Wear gloves when you're washing up or gardening
- Use oven gloves when handling hot dishes
- Use your unaffected hand to remove packages from the freezer
- Use a thimble when you're sewing.
If your leg is affected:
- Wear long trousers when you're gardening
- Don't go barefoot, especially on the beach, around swimming pools or in communal showers
- Use a protected blade or electric shaver to remove unwanted hair from your legs.
If your face or neck is affected:
- Use an electric shaver
- Don't wear tight collars, ties, scarves or necklaces
- Use creams and make-up especially for sensitive skin.