What to Do With an Open Wound

Any wound that has tissue or fat exposed to the air is considered an open wound. There are several types of open wounds, from scrapes to surgical incisions. Although you can care for many of these wounds at home, it's important you know the best ways to clean and dress them to ensure proper healing.

This article will explore the different types of wounds, how they heal, what you need to do to take care of them, and when to see a healthcare provider.

Dressing a patient’s wound.
Dressing a patient’s wound.

Science Photo Library / Getty Images

Types of Open Wounds

There are different types of open wounds, depending on what caused them.

Abrasion

An abrasion occurs when the skin is scraped or grazed by something that causes the top layers of the skin to break. Underlying layers of skin or tissue can be exposed, making it an open wound.

Abrasions can be deep, involving layers of nerves or blood vessels. But in most cases, these wounds are superficial, and simple cleaning and dressing should be enough to ensure good healing.

Laceration

A laceration is a cut that goes through layers of skin and/or tissue. It is usually caused by a hit with a blunt object, or a slice with something sharp.

Unlike surgical incisions, these wounds are usually jagged and irregular in shape. A laceration can go deep into soft tissue, so controlling bleeding is usually the first step in treating one. These wounds can be cleaned and dressed once bleeding is stopped but may require stitches or another type of wound closure to stop bleeding.

Puncture

A puncture wound is usually created by sharp, pointed objects like a nail or tooth. These wounds may appear closed at first and don't usually bleed much. However, the wound can still be open to the air, allowing bacteria and debris to enter. These wounds are prone to infection if not properly cleaned and cared for.

Avulsion

A wound is considered an avulsion when a cut or tear peels skin away. Also called full-thickness wounds, these injuries usually expose the fat and tissue below the skin, even if the skin is still attached to the edge of the wound.

Avulsions are usually very serious and almost always require medical care.

Treatment

How wounds are treated depends on the type of wound and how severe it is. For example, a cut caused by a surgeon's blade will be treated differently than a jagged laceration from a dirty shard of glass.

How to Clean an Open Wound

There are many over-the-counter (OTC) products marketed for cleaning wounds, but water is usually the best choice for cleaning an open wound.

Antiseptic solutions and cleansers like hydrogen peroxide can irritate and dry the tissues of open wounds. Keeping these wounds moist is usually necessary for proper healing.

Start by running cool, clean water over the wound. If that isn't enough to remove debris, use a gauze pad, cotton ball, or clean washcloth with just water or water and a mild soap. Try to avoid any soaps or cleansers that might irritate the wound.

Minor Wounds

Minor wounds are usually small—less than 1 or 2 inches—and not very deep. Most of the time, cleaning with water followed by the application of a sterile bandage is adequate treatment. If the wound was caused by a dirty or rusty instrument or an animal bite, call your healthcare provider to find out if antibiotics or a tetanus shot are necessary.

If you get a minor wound in just the right place, like over a blood vessel, it can be difficult to stop the bleeding. If this happens, you should seek medical care for stitches or some other kind of wound closure.

Major Wounds

A major wound usually requires some level of medical care. These wounds are typically large in area, deep, or both. It may be difficult to get these wounds to stop bleeding.

There is also a concern that a major wound could damage important structures under the skin such as blood vessels, tendons, or nerves.

When to Get Medical Care

You should see a healthcare provider if your wound is deep enough to expose bones, muscles, or tissue, or if you cannot stop the bleeding. You also need to seek care if you develop an infection or your wound is not healing. Keep an eye out for signs and symptoms such as:

  • Increasing pain or redness after healing
  • Yellow or green discharge
  • A bad odor
  • Black spots of tissue
  • Fever

Medication

Antibiotics can be useful in wounds caused by bites, or in chronic or infected wounds. A tetanus shot may also be recommended if you have a puncture wound, or your wound was caused by an object that could be contaminated.

If you experience pain from your injury, you may be able to use an OTC pain reliever like Advil or Motrin (ibuprofen) or Tylenol (acetaminophen). If you have a major wound, your healthcare provider may also apply topical pain relievers or prescribe you additional medications for pain.

Home Remedies

Keeping the wound clean and moist will often help it heal with less scarring. A first aid kit with items like sterile gauze and Band-Aids (adhesive bandages) can be helpful in treating wounds at home.

Some people use herbal remedies and supplements to speed healing. Examples of herbal or holistic remedies that may support healing include:

Talk to your healthcare provider before trying herbal remedies, especially for major wounds.

Wound Healing Stages

Wounds—even minor ones—don't heal overnight. They go through several stages of healing, including:

  • Bleeding is the first step in the healing process, because it helps to clean the wound. Blood cells will then begin clotting to help form a scab and stop the bleeding.
  • Inflammation usually comes next. In this phase, blood vessels bring fresh blood and nutrients to the wound site, helping your immune system fight infection as new tissue develops.
  • As the growth and rebuilding phase starts, scar tissue may form as cells produce collagen to help close the wound and build new tissue. Scar tissue can help reinforce the wound as it heals.
  • It can take several weeks, but new tissue will grow stronger over time. For larger wounds, the entire healing process could take months to years, especially if you experience any complications.

Risks

Infections are one of the biggest risks with open wounds; they can develop as a result of debris or other contamination in the wound. Older adults and people with health conditions such as diabetes and obesity may be more prone to developing infections.

Another risk is delayed healing that is due to poor circulation to the wound site. This can be caused by things like:

  • Vascular (blood flow) problems
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol use
  • Stress
  • Certain medications like steroids or chemotherapy drugs

If your wound doesn't heal or becomes inflamed and painful after a period of healing, your wound may not be getting what it needs to heal properly. Dark discoloration on the wound could be tissue necrosis (tissue death) and should be checked out by a healthcare provider immediately.

Summary

Your body has a lot of tools to heal small wounds, but larger wounds may require medical help to prevent infection or other complications. It's important to understand how a wound heals so that you can make sure yours is recovering properly.

A Word From Verywell

An open wound can be incredibly unpleasant, but in many cases, your body is well-equipped to deal with it. Often, clean running water and a dressing are all that minor wounds need to heal. If you have a large, deep, or serious wound, get medical attention and be sure to follow the care instructions from a healthcare provider. And if your wound doesn't seem to be healing correctly or may be infected, don't hesitate to reach out to your healthcare provider for help.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • When can you stop covering a wound?

    Covering a wound isn't always necessary. If the wound is bleeding, covering it can help keep the area clean. And larger open wounds with exposed areas of tissue are best covered to protect them from contamination and keep them moist as new tissue forms. In most cases, you can remove the dressing once a scab or new tissue begins to form.

  • How do you stitch a wound?

    Stitching a wound at home is not recommended. If your wound won't stop bleeding or is very deep, you should seek medical attention. Only trained medical professionals should suture wounds.

  • How do you dry up a weeping wound?

    A weeping wound isn't always a bad thing. Blood and other fluids created by your wound can help clean the wound and bring nutrients to build new tissue. You can cover the wound to collect this drainage, but be sure to talk to a doctor if the fluid is discolored or has an odor. These could be signs of infection.

  • What does an infected wound look like?

    An infected wound usually becomes more red, painful, and inflamed; it may develop a foul odor; and it can have yellow or green colored discharge.

  • How long is a tattoo considered an open wound?

    A fresh tattoo is essentially a series of puncture wounds. How long it takes these to heal depends on your body, but generally it takes at least a few weeks for tattoos to heal completely.

7 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.
  1. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Lacerations.

  2. MedlinePlus. Lacerations versus puncture wound.

  3. Worster B, et al. Common questions about wound care. Am Fam Physician. January 2015;91(2):86-92.

  4. MedlinePlus. Wounds and injuries.

  5. MedlinePlus. How wounds heal.

  6. Mount Sinai. Wounds.

  7. Johns Hopkins Medicine. How wounds heal.

By Rachael Zimlich, BSN, RN
 Rachael is a freelance healthcare writer and critical care nurse based near Cleveland, Ohio.