How to Properly Dress a Wound

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Properly dressing a wound is one of the most basic first aid techniques there is. The process remains unchanged regardless of the size or severity of the injury. Whether it's a child's skinned knee or a gunshot wound, the tenets of wound dressing are identical.

Minor cuts and scratches can be treated at home or on the road. Larger lacerations may also need to be dressed until medical help can be obtained. Cleanliness is key.

Nurse wrapping bandage around patient's wrist,close-up on hands
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Assess Bleeding

Coming in contact with someone else's blood poses risks, such as transmitting certain diseases. If at all possible, protect yourself by following universal precautions and wearing personal protective equipment (e.g., nitrile gloves or a mask).

Then, assess the bleeding. A little bleeding is okay because it helps flush dirt and other contaminants out of the wound, but heavy bleeding is bad.

Call 911 if there's:

  • Bright red or squirting blood
  • A puncture wound on the head, neck, chest, abdomen, pelvis, or back is more than an inch deep
  • A deep puncture wound on an arm above the elbow or a leg above the knee

Do what you can to stop the bleeding.

Clean the Wound

  • Clean the wound with running water.
  • Wash the skin around the injury with soap. Don't worry if soap gets into the wound, though it is likely to sting and irritate the raw tissue.
  • Rinse the wound thoroughly to rid it of any dirt and soap.
  • Use tweezers to remove particles (like broken glass or gravel).

Antibiotic ointment isn't necessary for a wound to heal nicely. However, it can help reduce the pain of raw injuries, such as abrasions.

Hydrogen peroxide also isn't necessary for cleaning a wound and it can be harmful. The bubbling action of hydrogen peroxide creates oxygen gas—more than the blood can handle. That can lead to a gas embolism, which is potentially fatal.

Very little evidence exists showing that hydrogen peroxide is effective on minor lacerations, and plenty of evidence is published on the merits of plain old water—so just use water.

Cover the Wound

  • Only cover the wound if it's likely to come in contact with clothing or dirt.
  • Adhesive bandages are the easiest way to cover most minor lacerations and abrasions.
  • Cuts less than 2 centimeters long can be held closed with butterfly bandages.
  • If the edges of a laceration are not easily pulled together, then the wound may need stitches.

Get Medical Help

Deep lacerations extend into the tissues below the skin. If you can see layers of tissue along the sides of the laceration, it's pretty deep. Puncture wounds are harder to evaluate and should be based on how long the offending object is.

Seek medical attention for a deep wound if it's:

  • Tender or numb
  • Inflamed (red and swollen)
  • Draining pus (yellowish, thick liquid)
  • A laceration with jagged edges or won't close

Also, get medical help if it's been more than five years since the victim had a tetanus shot.

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  1. Dreifke MB, Jayasuriya AA, Jayasuriya AC. Current wound healing procedures and potential care. Mater Sci Eng C Mater Biol Appl. 2015;48:651-62. doi:10.1016/j.msec.2014.12.068

  2. Dhivya S, Padma VV, Santhini E. Wound dressings - a review. Biomedicine (Taipei). 2015;5(4):22. doi:10.7603/s40681-015-0022-9

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