Category Archives: Dermatology

A Better Way to Drain Abscesses: The Berlin Technique

One of the consequences of the heroin epidemic we all are experiencing is a marked increase in the number of skin abscesses presenting to the jail medical clinics.  Jails have always had to deal with skin abscesses.  In fact, the single most popular JailMedicine post has been the Photographic Tutorial on Abscess I&D (found here).  But since the heroin epidemic, the number of skin abscess we see has exploded.  It is not unusual nowadays to lance an abscess every day!

The reason for this big increase in skin infections, of course, is that heroin users tend to share needles to shoot up, and these dirty needles leave behind the bugs that cause abscesses.  And since shooting up causes the abscesses, they tend to be found where addicts commonly shoot up–like the inner elbow, the forearm and even overlying the jugular veins of the neck.

Fortunately, just in time for this onslaught of abscesses, my good friend Neelie Berlin PA taught me a new method of lancing simple abscesses that is quicker and easier—yet just as effective—as the method I had been using for my entire career. I’m going to call this new method of draining abscesses “The Berlin Method.”

Who says you can’t teach an old Doc new tricks?  I have wholeheartedly gone over to the Berlin procedure.  It is THE method I use now to drain simple abscesses.

Today’s JailMedicine post is a pictographic tutorial on how to do this new easier method of lancing simple abscesses. Continue reading

Removing Microdermal Implants, A Photographic Tutorial

A couple of years ago, I first started to see microdermal implants in my jail patients.  This is, of course, jewelry that is implanted in the skin.  These have become so popular as to be almost universal.  If you work in a jail or prison (or even if you have looked around at your local grocery store), you certainly have seen these.  Microdermal implants can be problematic in correctional settings, because they cannot be easily removed like the older bolts and rings.  Microdermal implants are imbedded in the skin, and removal requires making an incision to extract them.

But in corrections, even though it is difficult, microdermal implants often must be removed, either as a security issue or because the patient requests that they be removed.  Nowadays, these implants are so common that all correctional practitioners really should know how to deal with microdermal jewelry.  But most of us were never taught how to do this in our training!  I certainly never learned about these in my residency training.  Such a thing would have been inconceivable back then.   Cutting edge fashion in those days was long hair and grungy jeans!

So I was grateful when an opportunity for education presented itself recently.   A friend of mine asked me if I would remove two of her micro dermal implants and kindly consented to have the procedure photographed.  Todays JailMedicine post is a photographic tutorial on how to remove microdermal implants.IMG_0793 Continue reading

Grody Feet and Heel Cracks

Back when I worked in the ER, we often would have patients come to the ER who were homeless or otherwise had not been taking care of themselves. Of particular concern was their feet—many had not removed their shoes for days or even weeks. When these shoes were removed, we often were confronted by a dreaded medical malady: Toxic Sock Syndrome.  These feet could be unbelievably odiferous—I have seen hardened paramedics retch.

So we had to be careful. If a patient was suspected of having Toxic Shock Syndrome, shoes and socks would be quickly removed into a plastic bag and the feet immediately washed and covered with clean slippers.

That was about the end of ER involvement with poorly-cared-for feet. As an ER Doc, I never had to do much with the underlying foot disease.

The situation has been reversed now that I work in jails and prisons. I don’t have to deal with Toxic Sock Syndrome anymore. (I’m sure the booking deputies do, though. Bless them). Instead, a day or two later I typically am confronted in the jail medical clinic with the grody feet themselves. Here is a typical example:Foot

The medical term for such feet is PalmoPlantar Keratoderma or PPK. Continue reading

Price Check! Extended Release Antidepressants

Every once in a while, because of changing drug prices, I discover that my formulary has become outdated. More expensive medications are on my formulary and less expensive equivalents are non-formulary. Depending on how long the price change occurred before I noticed it, I may have overpaid hundreds of dollars unnecessarily. Oops!

This situation arises more frequently than you might expect. Drug prices can change rapidly. And formularies do not get updated often enough. I try to go through mine quarterly, but, to be honest, it probably happens only once or twice a year. As a result, I miss opportunities to save my jails some money.

Today’s example is extended release antidepressants. For many years, I never even looked at extended release drug prices. I just “knew” that ERs were much more expensive than their immediate release cousins. But wait long enough, and everything goes generic, including extended release.

If you have not yet noticed, you can save quite a bit of money (and time!) by switching to extended release venlafaxine (Effexor) and bupropion (Wellbutrin). Continue reading

Ingrown Toenail Removal: A Pictographic Tutorial

Ingrown toenails are a common presenting complaint in my jail medical clinics, just as they were when I worked in the ER back-in-the-day. Of course, not all toe infections are due to an ingrown toenail (which I will talk about later), but when an ingrown toenail is present, removal of the ingrown nail spicula is instantly curative. And unless you remove the ingrown toenail, the toe usually will just smolder along and not get better. So knowing how to properly remove a toenail is a great and useful thing.

However, I have heard that some Correctional Practitioners are unfamiliar and uncomfortable with the procedure of toenail removal and so when faced with a nail that needs to come off, they instead:  1. Leave the nail on to fester, 2. Over-prescribe unnecessary antibiotics, or 3. Send correctional patients to a foot surgeon to have this simple procedure done. All of these are poor medical practice, in my opinion.

Like abscess I&D that I have written about previously, toenail removal seems to be a daunting procedure, but actually is quite simple. Of course, any medical procedure can be done incorrectly or inefficiently. Today’s JailMedicine post is a tutorial on how to cure ingrown nails by performing a simple toenail removal. Continue reading

Price Check! Genital Herpes. How Much is Nursing Time Worth?

It is worthwhile to check drug prices now and then (once a quarter seems about right) to see what is happening in the pharmaceutical world.  When you do this, you will find some drugs that have inexplicably shot up in price.  One recent example was doxycycline, which went from around ten cents a tablet to over two dollars a tablet in a couple of months.

On the other hand, drugs that we think of as expensive in the back of our minds sometimes are no longer expensive.  Olanzapine (Zyprexa) is now cheaper than haloperidol.  Risperidone is cheaper still.

And sometimes, a drug that is a bit more expensive than its alternative is still the most cost-effective treatment based on “the hassle factor,” meaning frequency of dosing, ease of administration, potential for diversion–that sort of thing. Drugs prescribed for outbreaks of genital herpes are like that, in my opinion.  Valacyclovir can be more cost-effective than acyclovir for the treatment of recurrent genital herpes.herpes1 Continue reading

Abscess Incision and Drainage, a Photographic Tutorial

Skin abscesses are quite common in correctional facilities, especially in the MRSA era, and so all correctional practitioners need to be comfortable with the procedure of abscess incision and drainage, also known as “lancing” the abscess.  Also “Let’s cut that sucker open.”  However, I’m going to be professional and call this procedure “I&D” for “Incision and Drainage.”

When I was just starting out in emergency medicine, I&D seemed to be quite a daunting task.  I was afraid of making a mistake and hurting someone or making them worse.  However, in actual fact, I&D is quite easy.  You can potentially hurt people more by not doing an I&D than by doing one.

But, like all medical procedures, it is possible to do the procedure poorly and inefficiently or to make outright mistakes.  The subject of today’s post is how to do a simple I&D of a skin abscess.  The opportunity to take pictures of the procedure arose when a fireman friend of mine walked in to my office and asked me to look at a lump on his back that had been there for a few days.  It was quite sore.  Here is a picture of the lump:

This appears to me to be a MRSA abscess.  Statistically, MRSA causes approximately 75% of all community acquired skin abscesses.  But beyond the statistical likelihood, this looks like a MRSA abscess.  It has lots of pus for its size along with a central area where the lesion is “pointing.”  This appearance is commonly mistaken for a “spider bite” by the lay public.

Why did my friend get a MRSA lesion on his back?  I don’t know.  Why does one member of a family get strep throat but not the others?  It just happens.  Usually, the only way to pinpoint the source is when multiple patients with a common background get MRSA, like members of a wrestling team or inmates housed in the same dorm.  A single, isolated case like this just happens—and not infrequently.

The treatment for MRSA abscess is Incision and Drainage, so I am going to cut this sucker open to let it drain—oops!  I mean I am going to perform an I&D procedure and document the process with pictures and discuss each step.  The process of I&D consists of these steps:

  1.  Skin cleaning.  I did this using alcohol wipes.  It is important to remember that this is not a sterile procedure—even if you do a surgically prep and drape the skin and use sterile gloves, they will not remain sterile once everything is covered by pus from the abscess!  Instead, this is a clean procedure.  You want everything to be clean, but you do not have to perform a formal surgical prep.
  2. Anesthesia.  I prefer to use 0.25% bupivicaine (Marcaine) with epinephrine.  Why Marcaine instead of lidocaine?  Well, they are comparable in price and Marcaine has the advantage of lasting 3-4 times longer, so the area stays numb for 12-16 hours instead of 4 hours.  Why use epinephrine?  The main reason to use epinephrine is that it constricts skin blood vessels so there is much less bleeding.  This makes the procedure that much easier to perform.  Epi also makes the anesthesia last longer—another bonus for the patient!
  3. Make the incision.  I prefer to use a #15 blade scalpel rather than the traditional #11 blade—but either will work.  The most common mistake made when incising an abscess is not to make the incision big enough.  The incision needs to be long enough and deep enough to allow access to the abscess cavity later, when you explore the abscess cavity.  Note that my incision stretches the whole diameter of the abscess—all the way from the top edge of redness to the bottom edge of redness.  Notice also that I have chosen in this case to make the incision run across the lines of tension of the skin by incising from top to bottom.  Typically, you would make an incision run the same direction as the skin creases if you want to minimize the scar.  I don’t care too much about a scar in this case, since the lesion is on the patient’s back.  I am more concerned with adequate drainage of the wound.  By making the incision perpendicular to the creases, the skin will naturally gape open after the procedure and allow pus to drain.  Not allowing the skin edges to touch and potentially re-seal is also the reason for placing packing in the wound, which we will discuss later.
  4. Squeeze out the pus.  This abscess had quite a bit of pus.  By the way, you do not have to routinely send this pus for culture in the majority of young healthy patients, especially if you are not going to prescribe an antibiotic (discussed later).  Culture is a good idea in complicated cases, such as immunocompromised patients, or large complicated abscesses.
  5. Explore the abscess cavity.  There are several reasons to do this.  The first is to see how deep the abscess goes.  Some abscesses are like icebergs—what you see at the surface is only a small portion of the whole abscess.  Some can run amazingly deep.  You should find the full extent of the abscess cavity.  Second, many abscesses have multiple chambers and your incision may have only drained one.  By exploring the cavity, you will break any remaining abscess walls and make sure the entire abscess has drained.  Finally, many abscesses have thick, adherent pus stuck to the walls that does not drain easily.  By rubbing the inner walls of the abscess, you will loosen that thick pus and get it out.  How to explore the abscess cavity depends on the abscess size. I have found that the best instrument for exploring bigger abscess is my gloved finger, as I have done here (as long as you are sure there are no foreign bodies in the abscess).  I have seen surgeons get their whole hand inside really big abscesses (of course abscesses that big probably should be sent to a surgeon).  On the other hand, you may not be able to get your finger into a small abscess.  A curved mosquito forceps with some gauze at the tip works well in those cases.
  6. Irrigate the interior of the abscess with saline.  This is done to make sure that we have all of the pus out.  When the saline draining out of the abscess is clear, the abscess cavity is clean.
  7. Insert a packAbscess packing is perhaps the single most misunderstood aspect of abscess I&D.  The purpose of the packing is to prevent the skin edges from re-sealing.  It is a mistake to think that the packing aids healing.  It does not.  There needs to be enough packing in the interior of the abscess cavity to prevent the wick from falling out, but there is no benefit to stuffing a ton of packing into the abscess.  In fact, that is detrimental, because the packing is a foreign body and because if the packing is packed so tightly so as to exert pressure, it can cause tissue necrosis.  In fact, not every abscess needs to be packed.  If the opening is gaping so widely that there is little chance of the edges re-sealing together, there may be no need for packing.  This point is so important that I will say it again:  abscess packing material is a foreign body.  It can delay healing and resolution of the abscess.  Its only function is to prevent the skin edges from re-sealing. The packing I place today will be removed tomorrow.  I don’t want it in there very long.  It is a foreign body.
  8. Place a dressing.  The first 24 hours after an I&D, the abscess will continue to weep, so it is nice to have an occlusive dressing to prevent he wound from weeping all over clothes and bedding and the inmate’s roommate.
  9. The next day, remove the packing.  Since the packing is a foreign body, it should be removed as quickly as possible.  Notice that this abscess seems reasonably dry after one day.  If the wound were still draining pus, that might mean that I had not fully cleaned out the abscess interior, and I might need to re-explore the abscess to see what I missed.
  10. Leave the abscess openPatients at this stage can shower and I encourage them to let the water wash out the interior of the cavity.  Over the next week or two, the abscess will heal in from the bottom out.
  11. Antibiotics? There is a large body of literature that says antibiotics should not be routinely prescribed for MRSA abscesses as long as they can be fully drained and as long as the patient is otherwise healthy and there is no accompanying cellulitis.  This patient is healthy and I see no cellulitis surrounding the abscess, so I am not going to use antibiotics.

This entire procedure took literally about 10 minutes to do.  It turned out well.

ADDENDUM (12/12/12)  This is a picture of the site one week post procedure.  It appears to be healing well.  The skin rash reaction to the dressing tape looks worse than the wound!IMG_0189

Mandatory disclaimer:  The technique I used here is a result of my Emergency Medicine training, my experience and my preferences.  Other practitioners may use other techniques that are just as effective.  Some may even disagree with what I have said here!  You should develop your own technique based on your training, experience and preferences!  A very good official source for the technique of abscess I&D is Roberts: Clinical Procedures in Emergency Medicine, 5th ed.  Chapter 37, Incision and Drainage.  Also, I am talking here about simple abscesses.  Abscesses in complicated areas such as the hands, neck or anus or abscesses of the face where the inevitable procedural scar will be visible may be best sent to a specialist to drain.

Do you have a different technique that you use to I&D abscesses?  Please comment!

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What’s That Skin Lesion? Plus updates.

Before we get to the cool skin lesion quiz, first a couple of updates!

Get your flu shot!

Robin, at the Ada County Jail in Boise, should get her flu shot!

Influenza shots are here.  Be sure to get yours.  I didn’t get my flu shot last year and subsequently came down with true influenza–NOT a fun experience.  I wrote about that experience here: Should the Flu Vaccine Be Mandatory?  Influenza is way worse than the shot. Continue reading

Six Months Later–Top Posts

Well, JailMedicine is now over six months old and has been more fun to write and much better received than I had imagined it would be.  JailMedicine has had over 30,000 hits!  Thank you especially to those of you who have written comments.  I have my opinions on certain topics (as you have read) but I realize that smart and accomplished people sometimes disagree with me–and sometimes they are right and I am wrong!  We all learn and become more effective clinicians when alternative views are expressed and debated–so please comment!

What can I do to make JailMedicine better? Continue reading

Reader Question About Antibiotic Use. What’s Your Opinion?

My name is Gabby and I am a ARNP working in  a rural health care setting in southern Washington and newly blessed with a county jail assignment.  I oversee 300 + inmates in a county jail setting and was turned onto your website by one of the RN’s in the medical office at the jail.  Thank you so much for the wonderful information that you share. I have some questions that I am hoping you can give me some guidance with today.

The population of patients that we deal with the most are heroin and meth users with extensive histories of dental decay and abscesses and multiple complicated skin infections from muscling heroin.  After reading your most recent posting on MRSA and misuse/overuse of antibiotics I was wondering what your thoughts would be regarding my jail’s protocols on dental abscess treatment plan with amoxicillin and skin infections/abscess treatment plan with Keflex and Bactrim.  These protocols are for the staff to use in between my visits twice a week.  A significant number of the inmates that I see are frequent flyers and often are treated with above stated protocols over and over again.  I am wondering if I need to request that these protocols be reevaluated.  And if so, what would be the new treatment recommendation that I would present look like?  Comments?

Thanks for the questions, Gabby!  And welcome to Correctional Medicine.  You’re going to love it!

I am going to answer your questions with my opinions on these topics and invite others to answer also via comments.

The two basic principles in the fight against antibiotic overuse which leads (among other things) to antibiotic resistance are:

  1. Don’t use antibiotics when you do not have to.  We’ll call this rule “Don’t Overprescribe.” I think that for years there has been the feeling in the medical community that antibiotics “Can’t hurt and might help,” so they were prescribed in lots of questionable settings.  In fact, antibiotics can hurt.  Besides microbial resistance, antibiotics have all sorts of side effects, ranging from nuisances to serious.
  2. When you do prescribe an antibiotic, use the narrowest spectrum antibiotic that will do the job.  We’ll call that the “Sledgehammer Rule,” as in “Don’t use a sledgehammer to hang a picture on your wall—you are more likely to cause damage than to do a good job.”

So let’s apply these rules to your cases, first, the dental infection case.

  1. Don’t overprescribe.  The danger here is over diagnosing infections that don’t exist.  Don’t prescribe antibiotics for a simple toothache.  Reserve the antibiotics for some objective evidence of infection:  facial or gum swelling, visible abscess, purulent gums, something.  Just because the patient has a toothache does not mean they have an infection.  Simple toothaches need some sort of pain management and certainly need a dental referral, but not usually an antibiotic.  Look carefully.  If you are not sure and can’t get them in to see the dentist right away, then recheck them again tomorrow.
  2. The Sledgehammer Rule. The organisms that tend to cause oral infections are usually still sensitive to plain penicillin, as in Penicillin VK  1000mg po BID.  There is no advantage in most cases to using broader spectrum agents like amoxicillin, Augmentin or Keflex.  We want to reserve these agents for infections already resistant to penicillin.  Similarly, plain penicillin is still the recommended first line agent for strep throat.

Antibiotics? NO! Incision and Drainage!

Second question–MRSA.  MRSA infections are increasingly becoming resistant to the very few agents available to treat them, so I think it is especially important to apply the two rules to these infections.

  1. Don’t overprescribe.  There is quite a lot of literature supporting the idea that you do NOT have to prescribe antibiotics following MRSA abscess I&D.  The treatment for any abscess is adequate incision and drainage.  You do not get any better resolution in most MRSA patients if you follow I&D with antibiotics.
  2. The Sledgehammer Rule.  I think that it is seldom good practice to prescribe both Kelfex and Bactrim simultaneously.  I know this is done outside of corrections, especially in ERs.  The rationale is that without a formal culture, you are not 100% sure if this particular cellulitis is caused by methicillin resistant staph (resistant to Keflex, sensitive to Bactrim) or methicillin sensitive staph (resistant to Bactrim, sensitive to Keflex), and so, to cover all your bases, you prescribe both.  However, personally, I think it is pretty easy to tell the difference between most cases of MRSA and non-MRSA infections just by looking at them.  The MRSA organism is an abscess former, and so, even early on, MRSA infections tend to form an abscess or at least show a central “spider bite” core.  Meth sensitive cellulitis usually does not have either. Make your best guess, maybe based on a picture the nurses send you if you are not right there, and re-evaluate as needed tomorrow or the next day.  You will pick correctly 95% of the time.

Finally, what about those patients who get recurring MRSA abscesses?  The patients who get recurring MRSA abscesses are typically MRSA carriers, and your goal then is to eradicate their carrier status.  There are several ways to do this according to MRSA guidelines (such as these by the Infectious Disease Society of America)—here are three:

  1. Apply mupiricin (Bactroban) 2% ointment to both nostrils (where MRSA tends to hang out in carriers) twice a day for ten days.
  2. Chlorhexadine body wash once a day for 5 days.
  3. Rifampin 600 mg po BID for five days in addition to your primary MRSA drug, whether Bactrim or Doxycycline—don’t prescribe rifampin alone.

Disclaimers:

We are talking here about typical young healthy patients.  Patients who have chronic health problems or are immunocompromised must be approached differently.

Also, The opinions here are my own.  I could be wrong; feel free to disagree!  But if you do, please comment so Gabby will have the benefit of other opinions and approaches.