Human Bites: More Dangerous Than You Think

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Human bites are often more dangerous than people might think. A human bite is when a person, typically a child, bites another person. Common scenarios that lead to a bite wound include children's play-fighting or a hand striking a tooth when punching.

There are about 250,000 human bites treated in the United States each year. The risk of infection from a human bite is surprisingly common due to high bacteria levels in the mouth. Even if a bite wound looks minor, it can lead to serious complications.

This article will provide an overview of human bites, including types, signs of infection, and treatment. 

Human bite mark

Benne Ochs / Getty Images

Types of Bites 

Human bites often occur in children and adolescents. Young children may bite each other while playing, and teens may become injured if a physical fight occurs. 

Occlusion Bites

An occlusion bite is when a person bites down on another person. This may happen in children who are play-fighting. Bites from toddlers and young children are usually low-risk because their teeth and jaws are not strong enough to break the skin. 

Clenched or Closed-Fist Bites

A closed-fist bite is when a closed fist hits the teeth of another person. This may happen when adolescents or adults fight and punch one another in the mouth.

About one-third of hand infections are believed to be caused by human bites.

Symptoms

Symptoms of a human bite vary depending on the severity. If the skin is not broken, there is usually no risk of infection. However, there could still be damage to the underlying tendons and joints. 

General Bites

Symptoms of general bites include:

  • Bruising
  • Abrasion (scrape or scratch) 
  • Laceration (cut or wound) 

Infected Bites

Signs of an infected bite may arise anywhere from eight hours to three days after the bite occurs. A bite may be infected when the following symptoms are present:

  • Redness
  • Erythema (skin redness)
  • Swelling
  • Pain
  • Pus drainage 
  • Fever 

Tendon or Nerve Damage

The tendons or nerves may be damaged when the following symptoms are present:

  • Inability to bend or straighten affected body part
  • Loss of sensation on or around the bite wound

Treatment

The treatment needed for a human bite depends on the severity of the wound and how it happened. When a human bite occurs, try to stay as calm as possible. Never place the wound in your mouth because this will add more bacteria to the wound. 

First Aid

A superficial wound, which does not break the skin, may be able to be treated at home. It is likely superficial if the skin is slightly broken, but no blood is visible. To treat a wound at home, take the following steps:

  • Wash the area with soap and water. Hold the wound under the faucet for at least five minutes. Do not scrub it because this could lead to bruising.
  • After washing, pat the wound dry and cover with a sterile (free of bacteria) dressing. 
  • Avoid using tape or butterfly bandages to close a wound. These methods could trap bacteria in the wound. 
  • If there is bruising, apply a cold compress.
  • Call your healthcare provider with any new or worsening symptoms.

If a human bite wound is actively bleeding, do not attempt to wash it. Hold firm pressure with a clean dressing on the wound while you seek medical attention. 

When to See a Healthcare Provider

It is important to see your healthcare provider right away if the bite wound is:

  • Bleeding
  • Red or inflamed
  • Painful
  • Draining pus 

Seek medical care immediately if there are signs of nerve or tendon damage, such as the inability to move the area or the loss of sensation. Red lines on the skin surrounding the wound may indicate a serious infection. 

To treat a human bite wound, your healthcare provider will start with a physical exam and medical history. The provider will note the wound’s location, size, and how deep the cut is. If needed, they will order X-rays to check for bone damage. Your provider may recommend a tetanus booster to prevent a bacterial infection if the injury is bleeding. 

Antibiotics may be needed to prevent infection. Augmentin (amoxicillin-clavulanate) is usually the first-line antibiotic used. Alert your provider if you or your child is allergic to penicillin.

Your healthcare provider may refer you to a specialist, and surgery may be needed if they suspect muscle, tendon, or nerve damage. 

If a human bite breaks the skin, see a healthcare provider within 24 hours because of the risk of bloodborne infections like human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), hepatitis B, and hepatitis C. 

Complications

Possible complications of a human bite wound include:

  • Infection
  • Tendon or muscle damage 
  • Nerve damage 

Once the skin is broken from a bite, there is a risk of infection because bacteria are introduced into the tissues. The risk of infection increases if the wound is bleeding and the biting individual is also bleeding from the mouth. 

If you have a weakened immune system, you are at higher risk of infection from a human bite than others. Factors that lower your immune response include:

Summary

Human bites are more dangerous than they appear. Due to the high number of bacteria in the mouth, a human bite can lead to serious infection. Signs of infection may include redness, swelling, warmth, pain, and pus drainage. Other complications may include damage to the muscles, tendons, or joints. To treat a superficial human bite at home, wash the area and cover it with a sterile dressing. A cold compress may be helpful for pain or swelling. If the wound is bleeding, see a healthcare provider. 

A Word From Verywell

Human bites are not uncommon in toddlers and young children, and it can be difficult to know how to handle them. See a healthcare provider if you are unsure if the wound is infected or has caused tissue damage. It’s helpful to remember that when young children bite, it is usually part of their play-fighting, and they are not trying to cause harm. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can tetanus be transmitted by a human bite?

    Yes, tetanus is a serious infection that can be transmitted from a human bite. If your bite wound is bleeding, ask your healthcare provider about a tetanus booster. 

  • How long does it take for a human bite to heal?

    The length of healing time for a human bite depends on how severe the wound is and if there are any complications. Signs of infection may take up to three days to develop. 

  • Do all human bites require antibiotics?

    No, all human bites do not require antibiotics. If the skin is not broken, the risk of infection is very low and usually does not require antibiotics. If you are unsure if antibiotics are necessary, see your healthcare provider. 

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6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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