The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







An ulcer (from Latin ulcus) is an open sore of the skin, eyes or mucous membrane, often caused by an initial abrasion and generally maintained by an inflammation and/or an infection.


What are ulcers

Ulcers are non healing wounds that develop on the skin, mucous membranes or eye. Although they have many causes, they are marked by

  1. Loss of integrity of the area
  2. Secondary infection of the site by bacteria, fungus or virus
  3. Generalized debilitation of the patient
  4. A lengthy healing time

Skin ulcers

The skin is the largest organ of the human body. Classification systems are used to communicate the severity and depth of an ulcer. It is an easy way to communicate changes for the better, or worse.

Merck Manual classification

  • Stage 1: The skin is red. The underlying tissue is soft. The redness disappears with minor pressure.
  • Stage 2: There is redness, swelling and hardening of the skin around the area. Sometimes there is blistering. Sometimes there is loss of the superficial skin.
  • Stage 3: The skin becomes necrotic. There may be exposure of the fat beneath the skin. The skin may be lost through all its layers.
  • Stage 4: There is more loss of fat and more necrosis of the skin through to the muscle beneath.
  • Stage 5: Continuing loss of fat and necrosis of muscle below.
  • Stage 6: Bone destruction begins with irritation of the bone, erosion of the bone cortex progressing to osteomyelitis. There may be sepsis of a joint, pathologic fracture or generalized body infection, septicemia.

National Pressure Ulcer Advisory Panel (NPUAP)

  • Stage I - There is erythema of intact skin which does not blanch with pressure. It may be the heralding lesion of skin ulceration.
  • Stage 2 - There is partial skin loss involving the epidermis, dermis, or both. The ulcer is superficial and presents as an abrasion, blister, or wound with a shallow center.
  • Stage 3 - This is an entire thickness skin loss. It may involve damage to or necrosis of subcutaneous tissue that may extend down to underlying fascia. The ulcer presents as a deep crater with or without undermining of adjacent intact tissues.
  • Stage 4 - Here there is entire thickness skin loss with extensive destruction, tissue necrosis, or damage to muscle, bone, or supporting structures. Tendons, and joints may also be exposed or involved. There may be undermining and holes or sinus tracts associated with ulcers at this stage.

Wagner's classification

  • Grade 0 - Skin with prior healed ulcer scars, areas of pressure which are sometimes called pre-ulcerative lesion or the presence of bony deformity which puts pressure on an unguarded point.
  • Grade I - A The wound is superficial in nature, with partial or full-thickness skin involvement but does not include tendon, capsule or bone.
  • Grade I-B - As above, the wound is superficial in nature, with partial or full thickness skin involvement but not including tendon, capsule nor bone; however the wound is infected. The definition of this wound implies superficial infection without involvement of underlying structures. If the wound shows signs of significant purulence or fluctuance, further exploration to expose a higher grade classification of infection is in order.
  • Grade I-C - As above but with vascular compromise.
  • Grade I-D - As above but with ischemia. Because ischemia is a type of vascular compromise, the distinction between these two grades is often difficult to make.
  • Grade 2-A - Penetration through the subcutaneous tissue exposing tendon or ligament, but not bone.
  • Grade 2-B - Penetration through the deep tissues including tendon or ligament and even joint capsule but not bone.
  • Grade 2-C - As above 2B, but including ischemia
  • Grade 2-D - As above 2c, but including infection
  • Grade 3-A - A wound which probes to bone but shows no signs of local infection nor systemic infection.
  • Grade 3-B - A wound which probes to bone and is infected
  • Grade 3-C - A wound which probes to bone is infected and is ischemic.
  • Grade 3-D - A wound which probes to bone characterized by active infection, ischemic tissues and exposed bone.
  • Grade 4 - Gangrene of the forefoot
  • Grade 5 - Gangrene of the entire foot

Other locations

  1. Inferior members: most ulcers of the foot and leg are caused by underlying vascular insufficiency . The skin breaks down or fails to heal because of repeated insult or trauma. Pressure of the nail can cause subungual ulceration. These are most frequently seen in diabetics who have a very low potential to heal from injury.
  1. Sacrum and ischium
  2. Mouth ulcer
  3. Intestinal ulcers : This includes ulcers of the esophagus, stomach, large and small intestine
  4. Genitalia: May be penile, vulvar or labial. Most often are due to sexually-transmitted diseases
  5. Eyes: corneal ulcers are the most common type. Conjunctival ulcers also occur.

Pathology of ulceration

The most common causes are:

Some specific types of ulcers are:

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