Dressings or topical agents for preventing pressure ulcers

Pressure ulcers, sometimes known as bedsores or pressure sores, commonly occur in people who cannot, or find it difficult to, move themselves. Pressure ulcers are hard to heal, so it is important to try to prevent them from occurring in the first place. Various cream and lotions (topical agents) have been used for this purpose; the idea is that pressure ulcers are less likely to occur when the skin is healthy and nourished. A number of different types of dressings are also used to protect the skin from damage. We reviewed studies that compared topical agents or dressings with other methods for preventing pressure ulcers. We found nine trials that investigated these that included 1501 people. These showed that the evidence concerning the use of topical agents or dressings for preventing pressure ulcers is not clear. The reason why the evidence is not clear is because the quality of trials was low and most had manufacturer sponsorship, which introduces potential biases, such as overestimating the effectiveness of the product. Consequently, further trials are needed to confirm results of this review.

Authors' conclusions: 

There is insufficient evidence from RCTs to support or refute the use of topical agents applied over bony prominences to prevent pressure ulcers. Although the incidence of pressure ulcers was reduced when dressings were used to protect the skin, results were compromised by the low quality of the included trials. These trials contained substantial risk of bias and clinical heterogeneity (variations in populations and interventions); consequently, results should be interpreted as inconclusive. Further well designed trials addressing important clinical, quality of life and economic outcomes are justified, based on the incidence of the problem and the high costs associated with pressure ulcer management.

Read the full abstract...

Pressure ulcers, which are localised injury to the skin, or underlying tissue or both, occur when people are unable to reposition themselves to relieve pressure on bony prominences. Pressure ulcers are often difficult to heal, painful and impact negatively on the individual's quality of life. The cost implications of pressure ulcer treatment are considerable, compounding the challenges in providing cost effective, efficient health services. Efforts to prevent the development of pressure ulcers have focused on nutritional support, pressure redistributing devices, turning regimes and the application of various topical agents and dressings designed to maintain healthy skin, relieve pressure and prevent shearing forces. Although products aimed at preventing pressure ulcers are widely used, it remains unclear which, if any, of these approaches are effective in preventing the development of pressure ulcers.


To evaluate the effects of dressings and topical agents on the prevention of pressure ulcers, in people of any age without existing pressure ulcers, but considered to be at risk of developing a pressure ulcer, in any healthcare setting.

Search strategy: 

In February 2013 we searched the following electronic databases to identify reports of relevant randomised clinical trials (RCTs): the Cochrane Wounds Group Specialised Register; the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL) (The Cochrane Library); Database of Abstracts of Reviews of Effects (The Cochrane Library); Ovid MEDLINE; Ovid MEDLINE (In-Process & Other Non-Indexed Citations); Ovid EMBASE; and EBSCO CINAHL.

Selection criteria: 

We included RCTs evaluating the use of dressings, topical agents, or topical agents with dressings, compared with a different dressing, topical agent, or combined topical agent and dressing, or no intervention or standard care, with the aim of preventing the development of a pressure ulcer.

Data collection and analysis: 

We assessed trials for their appropriateness for inclusion and for their risk of bias. This was done by two review authors working independently, using pre-determined inclusion and quality criteria.

Main results: 

Five trials (940 participants) of unclear or high risk of bias compared a topical agent with a placebo. Four of these trials randomised by individual and one by cluster. When results from the five trials were combined, the risk ratio (RR) was 0.78 (95% CI 0.47 to 1.31; P value 0.35) indicating no overall beneficial effect of the topical agents. When the cluster randomised trial was omitted from the analysis, use of topical agents reduced the pressure ulcer incidence by 36%; RR 0.64 (95% CI 0.49 to 0.83; P value 0.0008).

Four trials (561 participants), all of which were of high or unclear risk of bias, showed that dressings applied over bony prominences reduced pressure ulcer incidence; RR 0.21 (95% CI 0.09 to 0.51; P value 0.0006).