Rust is a flaky substance called ferric oxide that corrodes and destroys metal items as a result of oxidation, especially in salty or wet conditions. Rust by itself is not dangerous but if someone steps on a rusty nail or cut by a rusty item, it can be fatal. Minor infection of the wound is the least of the injured person's worries. The threat of tetanus or even gangrene is the worst.
Proper Wound Care
Any rust wound not properly cared for can become infected. Puncture wounds are particularly vulnerable, because they are likely to leave rust residue in a wound tract that may not be noticed encouraging infection. Often the rust acts as a wooden splinter would and works its way out of the skin. Other times it remains in the wound and contributes to infection. Proper wound care after injury varies depending on the size of the injury. If it is small washing with soap and treating with antibacterial ointment and a bandage may be all it needs to heal. Larger wounds should be seen by a physician as they may require debridement (removal of dirt, rust or other contaminants) or even sutures. Physician assistance is required if the injured person has not received a tetanus shot or booster within the last five years.
Simple Infection from a Rusty Cut
Simple infection of a rusty wound is evident even to the casual observer. The tissue around the wound becomes red, swollen and inflamed. Pain increases and the presence of a thick white fluid called pus may be noticed. Some with an infected wound will maintain a low-grade temperature and feel fatigued. A quick trip to a physician or emergency room is needed. The wound will need to be re-treated and the patient prescribed oral antibiotics. Infections left untreated only get worse. At this point, the physician will again suggest a tetanus shot if the patient has not had one.
Serious Infection from Rusty Cuts
Once a rusty wound has become infected and left untreated, the infection worsens. An ignored infection will produce a high fever, pus production increases and is accompanied by a foul smell. Lymph nodes will swell and wound pain will be almost unbearable. An emergency room visit is essential now as the usual broad spectrum, oral antibiotic treatment may not work. It may even be necessary for the injured person to be hospitalized and intravenous antibiotic therapy started. The wound itself will need further debridement and may require a drain to be inserted for pus drainage. Ignoring the infection by not seeking medical attention will ultimately result in tissue death, called gangrene. Gangrene is a complication of uncontrolled infection that destroys tissue. In addition to hospitalization and aggressive antibiotic therapy, possible amputation of the affected areas may now be required. If the infection has invaded the blood, septicemia, a full body bacterial infection could result in death for the person with the rusty cut or puncture.
Tetanus and Rusty Cuts
In spite of popular belief, almost any puncture or injury can cause tetanus, but tetanus is often connected to rusty cuts. Tetanus is a severe bacterial infection, caused by Clostridium tetani introduced to the body through a cut or puncture. Tetanus symptoms can begin from two weeks to two months after the rusty cut. Symptoms include headache and jaw muscle spasms, giving the infection the label, "lock jaw." As the toxin spreads through the body it quickly involves spasms in more muscles such as neck, limbs and stomach. It also can cause severe convulsions. People who contract tetanus usually will need to spend several weeks in the hospital as recovery is gradual. Complications of tetanus can be severe and include extended periods of muscle stiffness and soreness, lung and breathing problems, low bone density, pulmonary embolism (blood clots in the lungs), arrythmia (abnormal heartbeat), high blood pressure, pneumonia and possible death. Tetanus, which was once widespread, is now rare since a vaccine was created in the 1940s. In the United States, the death rate for tetanus is 3 out of every 10, mostly in people who are underimmunized or not immunized. Tetanus continues to be common in undeveloped countries lacking proper medical care.