Cuts, scrapes (abrasions), and puncture wounds facts
- Washing a cut or scrape with soap, and water and keeping it clean and dry is all that is required to care for most wounds.
- Cleaning the wound with hydrogen peroxide and iodine is acceptable initially, but can delay healing and should be avoided long-term.
- Apply antibiotic ointment and keep the wound covered.
- Seek medical care within 6 hours if the bleeding does not stop, as the wound might need stitches.
- A delay can increase the rate of wound infection.
- Any puncture wound through tennis shoes or sneakers has a high risk of infection and should be seen by a doctor.
- Any redness, swelling, increased pain, fever, red streaking, or pus draining from the wound may indicate an infection that requires medical care.
What is the best first aid for a cut or scrape?
The first step in the care of cuts, scrapes (abrasions) is to stop the bleeding. Most wounds respond to direct pressure with a clean cloth or bandage. Hold the pressure continuously for approximately 10 to 20 minutes. If this fails to stop the bleeding or if bleeding is rapid, seek medical assistance.
Next, thoroughly clean the wound with soap and water. Remove any foreign material in the wound, such as dirt, or bits of grass, which may lead to infection. Tweezers can be used (clean them with alcohol first) to remove foreign material from the wound edges, but do not dig into the wound as this may push bacteria deeper into the wound or injure subcutaneous (under the skin) structures. The wound may also be gently scrubbed with a washcloth to remove dirt and debris. Hydrogen peroxide and povidone-iodine (Betadine) products may be used to clean the wound initially, but may inhibit wound healing if used long-term.
Cover the area with a bandage (such as gauze or a Band-Aid) to help prevent infection and dirt from getting in the wound. A first aid antibiotic ointment (Bacitracin, Neosporin, Polysporin) can be applied to help prevent infection and keep the wound moist.
Continued care to the wound is also important. Three times a day, wash the area gently with soap and water, apply an antibiotic ointment, and re-cover with a bandage. Change the bandage immediately if it gets dirty or wet.
Who should seek medical care for a cut?
If you cannot control the bleeding from a cut or scrape (abrasion), seek medical attention. Any cut that goes beyond the top layer of skin or is deep enough to see into might need stitches (sutures), and should be seen by a doctor as soon as possible. Generally, the sooner the wound is sutured, the lower the risk of infection. Ideally, wounds should be repaired within six hours of the injury.
People with suppressed immune systems (including people with diabetes, cancer patients receiving chemotherapy, people who take steroid medications, such as prednisone, patients on dialysis, or people with HIV) are more likely to develop a wound infection and should be seen by a doctor. People who are on blood thinning medication and cannot control the bleeding should be seen by a doctor immediately.
Any wound that shows signs of infection should be seen by a doctor.
What are the signs and symptoms of a wound infection?
If the wound begins to drain yellow or greenish fluid (pus), or if the skin around the wound becomes red, warm, swollen, or increasingly painful; a wound infection may be present and medical care should be sought. Any red streaking of the skin around the wound may indicate an infection in the system that drains fluid from the tissues, called the lymph system. This infection (lymphangitis) can be serious, especially if it is accompanied by a fever. Prompt medical care should be sought if streaking redness from a wound is noticed.
How are puncture wounds different?
A puncture wound is caused by an object piercing the skin, creating a small hole. Some punctures can be very deep, depending on the source and cause.
Puncture wounds do not usually bleed much, but treatment is necessary to prevent infection. A puncture wound can cause infection because it forces bacteria and debris deep into the tissue, and the wound closes quickly forming an ideal place for bacteria to grow.
For example, if a nail penetrates deep into the foot, it can hit a bone and introduce bacteria into the bone. This risk is especially great if an object has gone through a pair of sneakers or tennis shoes. The foam in sneakers can harbor bacteria that can lead to serious infection in the tissues.
First aid for puncture wounds includes cleaning the area thoroughly with soap and water. These wounds are very difficult to clean out. If the area is swollen, ice can be applied and the area punctured should be elevated. Apply antibiotic ointments (Bacitracin, Polysporin, Neosporin) to prevent infection. Cover the wound with a bandage to keep out harmful bacteria and dirt. Cleanse the puncture wound and change the bandage three times a day, and monitor for signs of infection (the same signs as in the cuts section). Change the bandage any time it becomes wet or dirty.
People with suppressed immune systems or any particularly deep puncture wounds should be seen by a doctor. If it is difficult to remove the puncturing object, it may have penetrated the bone and requires medical care.
Most puncture wounds do not become infected, but if redness, swelling or bleeding persists, see your doctor.
Puncture wounds to the feet are a particular concern. Wear shoes to minimize the risk of a puncture wound from a nail or glass, especially if the affected person has diabetes or loss of sensation in the feet for any reason.
Additional common causes of puncture wounds can include animal or human bites, or splinters from wood or other plant material, which carry a high risk of infection and should be treated by a physician.
Will I need a tetanus shot for a cut, scrape, or puncture wound?
Most people in the United States have been immunized against tetanus (lockjaw). If the affected person has been immunized, a booster shot can be given if they have not had one within 10 years, or if it is a very dirty wound, a booster shot can be given within five years. If affected person has never had a tetanus shot, or if their series is incomplete (fewer than three shots), they might need tetanus immunoglobulin, a medication that can prevent lockjaw.
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Medically reviewed by Avrom Simon, MD; Board Certified Preventative Medicine with Subspecialty in Occupational Medicine
University of Maryland Medical Center. Wounds.