How are wounds managed in patients with diabetic foot ulcers?

Updated: Oct 15, 2020
  • Author: Tanzim Khan, DPM; Chief Editor: Romesh Khardori, MD, PhD, FACP  more...
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After débridement, apply a moist sodium chloride dressing or isotonic sodium chloride gel (eg, Normlgel, IntraSite gel) or a hydroactive paste (eg, Duoderm). Optimal wound coverage requires wet-to-damp dressings, which support autolytic débridement, absorb exudate, and protect surrounding healthy skin. A polyvinyl film dressing (eg, OpSite, Tegaderm) that is semipermeable to oxygen and moisture and impermeable to bacteria is a good choice for wounds that are neither very dry nor highly exudative. Wound coverage recommendations for some other wound conditions are as follows (see the Table, below) [55] :

  • Dry wounds: Hydrocolloid dressings, such as DuoDERM or IntraSite Hydrocolloid, are impermeable to oxygen, moisture, and bacteria; maintain a moist environment; and support autolytic  débridement. They are a good choice for relatively desiccated wounds.

  • Exudative wounds: Absorptive dressings, such as calcium alginates (eg, Kaltostat, Curasorb), are highly absorptive and are appropriate for exudative wounds. Alginates are available in a rope form, which is useful for packing deep wounds.

  • Very exudative wounds: Impregnated gauze dressings (eg, Mesalt) or hydrofiber dressings (eg, Aquacel, Aquacel-Ag) are useful for extremely exudative wounds. In these cases, twice-daily dressing changes may be needed.

  • Infected wounds: For infected superficial wounds, use Silvadene (silver sulfadiazine) if the patient is not allergic to sulfa drugs; if a sulfa allergy exists, either bacitracin-zinc or Neosporin ointment is a good alternative. Where heavy bacterial contamination of deeper wounds exists, irrigation using one-fourth strength Dakin solution and 0.25% acetic acid may be useful for a brief period of time; a hydrofiber-silver dressing (Aquacel-Ag) can help control wounds that are both exudative and potentially colonized.

  • Wounds covered by dry eschar: In this case, simply protecting the wound until the eschar dries and separates may be the best management. Occasionally, painting the eschar with povidone iodine (Betadine) is beneficial to maintain sterility while eschar separation occurs; an uninfected dry heel ulcer in a well-perfused foot is perhaps best managed in this fashion.

  • Areas that are difficult to bandage: Bandaging a challenging anatomical area, such as around a heel ulcer, requires a highly conformable dressing, such as an extra thin hydrocolloid; securing a dressing in a highly moist challenging site, such as around a sacrococcygeal ulcer, requires a conformable and highly adherent dressing, such as a wafer hydrocolloid.

  • Fragile periwound skin: Hydrogel sheets and nonadhesive forms are useful for securing a wound dressing when the surrounding skin is fragile.

Other topical preparations that occasionally may be useful in the management of diabetic foot ulcers are as follows:

  • Platelet-derived growth factors (PDGF): Topically applied PDGF has a modestly beneficial effect in promoting wound healing. Becaplermin gel 0.01% (Regranex), a recombinant human PDGF that is produced through genetic engineering is approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to promote healing of diabetic foot ulcers. [45] Regranex is meant for a healthy, granulating wound, not one with a necrotic wound base, and is contraindicated with known skin cancers at the site of application.

  • Enzymatic débridement: Collagen makes up a significant fraction of the necrotic soft tissues in chronic wounds; the enzyme collagenase, derived from fermentation of Clostridium histolyticum, helps remove nonviable tissue from the surface of wounds. However, it is not a substitute for an initial surgical excision of a grossly necrotic wound.

  • Miscellaneous topical agents: Various other topical agents that have been used for wound management include sugar, antacids, and vitamin A and D ointment.

Cytotoxic agents, such as hydrogen peroxide, povidone iodine, acetic acid, and Dakin solution (sodium hypochlorite), should be avoided, except as noted above under infected wounds.

Table. Characteristics and Uses of Wound Dressing Materials (Open Table in a new window)













This seaweed extract contains guluronic and mannuronic acids that provide tensile strength and calcium and sodium alginates, which confer an absorptive capacity. Some of these can leave fibers in the wound if they are not thoroughly irrigated. These are secured with secondary coverage.

These are highly absorbent and useful for wounds having copious exudate. Alginate rope is particularly useful to pack exudative wound cavities or sinus tracts.





An absorptive textile fiber pad, also available as a ribbon for packing of deep wounds. This material is covered with a secondary dressing. The hydrofiber combines with wound exudate to produce a hydrophilic gel. Aquacel-Ag contains 1.2% ionic silver that has strong antimicrobial properties against many organisms, including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus and vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus.

These are absorbent dressings used for exudative wounds.

Debriding agents

Hypergel (hypertonic saline gel)

Santyl (collagenase)

Accuzyme (papain urea)

Various products provide some degree of chemical or enzymatic débridement.

These are useful for necrotic wounds as an adjunct to surgical  débridement.





Polyurethane foam has some absorptive capacity.

These are useful for cleaning granulating wounds having minimal exudate.





Duoderm CGF Extra Thin



These are made of microgranular suspension of natural or synthetic polymers, such as gelatin or pectin, in an adhesive matrix. The granules change from a semihydrated state to a gel as the wound exudate is absorbed.

They are useful for dry necrotic wounds, wounds having minimal exudate, and clean granulating wounds.




IntraSite Gel




Purilon Gel

(KY jelly)

These are water-based or glycerin-based semipermeable hydrophilic polymers; cooling properties may decrease wound pain. These gels can lose or absorb water depending upon the state of hydration of the wound. They are secured with secondary covering.

These are useful for dry, sloughy, necrotic wounds (eschar).

Low-adherence dressing




These are various materials designed to remove easily without damaging underlying skin.

These are useful for acute minor wounds, such as skin tears, or as a final dressing for chronic wounds that have nearly healed.

Transparent film






These are highly conformable acrylic adhesive film having no absorptive capacity and little hydrating ability, and they may be vapor permeable or perforated.

These are useful for clean dry wounds having minimal exudate, and they also are used to secure an underlying absorptive material. They are used for protection of high-friction areas and areas that are difficult to bandage such as heels (also used to secure IV catheters).

For more information, see Diabetic Foot Infections.

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