Comprehensive wound malodor management: Win the RACE

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ABSTRACTComplex wounds that give off a foul odor are common in various patient care settings. Wound malodor has grave effects, both physical and psychological, and its management presents a serious challenge for caregivers. Multiple factors and processes involved in malodor production need to be considered in designing a comprehensive treatment plan described by the acronym RACE: removal of necrotic tissue, antibacterials, odor concealers, and education and support. Improving quality of life is the outcome of winning the RACE against malodor.


  • Necrotic tissue is a substrate for bacterial growth and should be debrided. A variety of methods can be used.
  • Malodor is most often from infection with anaerobic organisms, which topical metronidazole and other agents can help control.
  • An absorbent dressing should be used either as a primary dressing, or over a layer of topical metronidazole and a nonadherent primary dressing.
  • Foremost in formulating a patient- and family-centered malodor management strategy is to commit to controlling it as much as possible.



Wounds that fail to heal become more than mere skin lesions. Pain, malodor, and the accompanying psychological distress often complicate nonhealing wounds and impair quality of life.1 Management of malodor requires perseverance, sensitivity, and familiarity with tools and procedures that range from surgical debridement to medical-grade honey.

Chronic, nonhealing wounds are defined as persisting for more than 6 months.2 These lesions are incapable of undergoing anatomic and functional repair on their own. Commonly encountered nonhealing wounds include pressure ulcers, venous stasis ulcers, arterial insufficiency ulcers, and malignant cutaneous wounds.

Typically, the patient with a nonhealing wound is frail, debilitated, medically complex, and often faced with one or more life-limiting illnesses. Complete wound healing may therefore be unrealistic, and optimal wound management becomes the goal of care.3,4

Healthcare providers encounter nonhealing wounds in varied settings—acute inpatient, outpatient, long-term, and home care. For instance, in the home care setting, a study of 383 patients enrolled in hospice found that 35% had skin ulcers and wounds.3 Half of those affected had pressure ulcers, 20% had ischemic ulcers, and 30% had other skin disorders such as stasis ulcers, burns, skin tears, and tumors. A larger study, also in hospice patients, found that 26% had pressure ulcers and 10% more developed them within 6 months.5

While pressure ulcers are the most common nonhealing wounds, malignant or fungating wounds are found in 5% to 10% of patients with metastatic disease, usually with cancers of the breast, head, and neck.6

The three major causes of wound malodor are slough, infection, and exudate

Maximizing wound care provides comfort, relieves suffering, and promotes quality of life.3,7 To achieve these goals, clinicians must be familiar with strategies to manage complications associated with nonhealing wounds such as pain, malodor, and psychosocial adverse effects. Of these complications, malodor has been pointed out by both patients and caregivers as the most distressing.8

This article focuses on wound malodor, discusses the processes that cause wounds to emit an offensive smell, and outlines a comprehensive management approach.


Mrs. A., 61 years old, had a fungating mass in her left breast, which began as a small nodule and progressively enlarged to deform her breast over several months. Her oncologist subsequently staged the extent of her cancer as stage IV after workup revealed lung metastasis. Mrs. A. and her family decided to forgo cancer treatment, including radiotherapy, and to transition to hospice care after discussions with the oncologist.

Mrs. A. lived at home with her husband. Her daughter and three grandchildren all lived nearby.

When her hospice physician arrived at her home to meet her, a strong, pungent, and nauseating smell greeted him as he entered her bedroom. The patient said that for the past few months she had been increasingly distressed by the revolting odor. She rarely left home and had been ashamed to have people visit her, including her family.

On examination, the physician noticed a large fungating mass with yellowish discharge and necrotic tissue in her left breast. In addition to mild pain, she was immensely bothered by the strong odor coming from her breast.


As seen in the case of Mrs. A., malodor has grave effects, both physical and psychological. Patients experience impaired or socially unacceptable body image, social rejection, personal shame, and embarrassment.9,10 Feelings of fear, anxiety, and depression are common. If left uncontrolled, malodor results in social isolation, reluctance to engage in social activities, diminished appetite, and nausea. In addition, malodor is a constant reminder of patients’ pain and cancer, and it results in further suffering.11

Reactions of family members and caregivers can worsen the situation.9,12 Expressions of revulsion limit contact and inhibit intimacy, especially near the end of life. Caregivers are often frustrated and distressed over their inability to control the malodor. The environment becomes uninhabitable, and the malodor can permeate clothing, furniture, and living quarters.

Managing malodor can be emotionally draining, physically daunting, and frustrating for healthcare professionals, as several methods are usually employed, often in a trial-and-error approach, to achieve an acceptable degree of odor control. In addition, clinicians must face the challenge of treating malodorous wounds at very close distance without reacting in a way that offends or alarms patients and family members.13


All wounds can produce an odor.14 Wounds that are expected to heal typically emit a faint but not unpleasant odor, akin to fresh blood. Wounds colonized by Pseudomonas aeruginosa produce a fruity or grapelike odor that is tolerable. Malodor occurs with wounds infected by other gram-negative organisms or anaerobic bacteria.15 Similarly, wounds covered by necrotic tissue smell like decaying flesh.

Three major causes

Figure 1.

The three major causes of wound malodor are slough, infection, and exudate (Figure 1).

Slough is dead or necrotic tissue, usually resulting from vascular compromise. Arterial ulcers, pressure ulcers, and malignant wounds all form slough from capillary occlusion, subsequent ischemia, and tissue necrosis.

Infection. Devitalized tissue, an ideal medium in which bacteria thrive, becomes the source of infection. Anaerobic bacteria are usually implicated in malodor. These include Bacteroides fragilis, Bacteroides prevotella, Clostridium perfringens, and Fusobacterium nucleatum.16,17 Anaerobic organisms produce putrescine and cadaverine, which are largely responsible for the offensive odor.16,18 Volatile fatty acids such as propionic, butyric, isovaleric, and valeric acid are formed from lipid catabolism by anaerobes and add to malodor.17 Aerobic bacteria such as Proteus, Klebsiella, and Pseudomonas species supercolonize necrotic tissue as well and contribute to malodor.17,18

Exudate. Since nonhealing wounds undergo repeated cycles of inflammation, infection, and necrosis, accumulation of exudate becomes inevitable. Exudate typically is a pus-like fluid containing serum, fibrin, and white blood cells, which leak from blood vessels. In addition, bacteria that colonize chronic wounds filled with necrotic tissue activate proteases that degrade and liquefy dead tissue, thereby forming extensive amounts of exudate.19

Apart from slough, infection, and exudate, poor general hygiene and dressings left on for too long may contribute to malodor.16 Moisture-retentive dressings such as hydrocolloids leave an odor after removal. Dressings that liquefy upon contact with the wound surface leave a pus-like, potentially malodorous material.

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