Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2002;66(2):315-316

How should I clean a cut, scrape, or wound?

The best way to clean a cut, scrape, or puncture wound (such as from a nail) is with cool water. You can hold the wound under running water or fill a tub with cool water and pour it from a cup over the wound.

Use soap and a soft washcloth to clean the skin around the wound. Try to keep soap out of the wound because it can cause irritation. Use tweezers that have been cleaned in isopropyl alcohol to remove any dirt that is still in the wound after washing.

Even though it may seem that you should use a stronger cleansing solution (such as hydrogen peroxide or an antiseptic), these things may irritate wounds. Ask your family doctor if you feel you must use something other than water.

What about bleeding?

Bleeding helps clean out wounds. Most small cuts or scrapes will stop bleeding in a short time. Wounds on the face, head, or mouth will sometimes bleed a lot because these areas are rich in blood vessels.

To stop the bleeding, apply firm but gentle pressure on the cut with a clean cloth, tissue, or piece of gauze. If the blood soaks through the gauze or cloth you are holding over the cut, don't take it off. Just put more gauze or another cloth on top of what you already have in place and apply more pressure.

If your wound is on an arm or leg, raising it above your heart also will help slow the bleeding.

Should I use a bandage?

Leaving a wound uncovered helps it stay dry and helps it heal. If the wound isn't in an area that will get dirty or be rubbed by clothing, you don't have to cover it.

If the wound is in an area that will get dirty (such as your hand) or be irritated by clothing (such as your knee), cover it with an adhesive bandage (brand name: Band-Aid), or with a piece of sterile gauze and adhesive tape, or use a skin adhesive (brand name: Band-Aid Liquid Bandage). Change the adhesive strip or gauze each day to keep the wound clean and dry.

Certain wounds, such as scrapes that cover a large area of the body, should be kept moist and clean to help reduce scarring and speed healing. Bandages used for this purpose are called occlusive or semiocclusive bandages. You can buy them in drug stores without a prescription. Your family doctor will tell you if this type of bandage is best for you.

Should I use an antibiotic ointment?

Antibiotic ointments (such as Bacitracin) help healing by keeping out infection and by keeping the wound clean and moist. A bandage does the same thing. If you have stitches, your doctor will tell you whether to use an antibiotic ointment. Most minor cuts and scrapes will heal without antibiotic ointment, but it can speed healing and help reduce scarring.

Call your family doctor if any of the following things happen:

  • The wound is jagged.

  • The wound is on your face.

  • The edges of the cut hang open.

  • The cut has dirt in it that won't come out.

  • The cut becomes tender or inflamed (red).

  • The cut drains a thick, creamy, grayish fluid.

  • You start to run a temperature higher than 100°F.

  • The area around the wound feels numb.

  • You can't move comfortably.

  • Red streaks form near the wound.

  • It's a puncture wound or a deep cut, and you haven't had a tetanus shot in the past five years.

  • The cut bleeds in spurts, blood soaks through the bandage, or the bleeding doesn't stop after 10 minutes of firm, direct pressure.

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