I was 20 years old. It was my sophomore year in college, and I was finishing up a relaxing evening swim at the gym. Just out of the shower, I accidentally dropped my towel and, without looking, leaned over quickly to grab it, hitting my head on a hard plastic housing bolted to the wall. I made contact just above my left eye, and I hit it so hard and in just the right place that it split open. Blood started flowing everywhere, and I didn’t feel too great. There was no one around at the time, and I wasn’t quite sure what to do. I knew the bleeding wouldn’t stop soon, but I didn’t want to be inconvenienced by a trip to the ER. I needed to dress my own wound.
Cleaning and dressing your own wound can be a difficult task, but sometimes you don’t have a choice.
The gash warranted some attention, and there was no one around to help, but I did find an open office and got my hands on a roll of masking tape. I found a mirror and got off as much blood off the wound as I could before slapping the tape on my cut. Then I applied two more pieces of masking tape to keep it all in place. It looked like hell. When I got home, I tossed on two adhesive bandages and let the healing take its course. After a few days of keeping water off it, the wound began to heal, and the skin above my eye actually didn’t look like a piece of hacked-off meat.
One day, you might find yourself in a similar, perhaps even worse situation (and with even less at hand). Cleaning and dressing your own wound can be a difficult task, but sometimes you don’t have a choice — especially if you’re in the great outdoors and completely isolated from immediate help. Even a small injury can quickly go south, and suddenly it’s adapt or die. Cuts, abrasions, burns and puncture wounds require quick thinking and the right procedures, no matter where you are. If there’s a first aid kit nearby, by all means use it (and that’s good reason to check stock regularly). Keeping one in your car or your pack is smart and may someday save your life. And then, when calamity strikes, use those kits and some cunning, and get on with healing yourself.
1Stop the bleeding. Though this may not always be possible given the nature of the injury, it’s a good idea to apply firm pressure with a clean cloth to stop continued blood loss. Significant blood loss on a limb might require more than just pressure or a tourniquet, but for our purposes, we’ll address less severe wounds. Anything major that exposes bone and subcutaneous tissue (like muscle) requires real medical attention as soon as possible. But if you’re able to keep firm pressure until the bleeding abates, then good. It’s at this point when you’ll need to start preparing to clean and dress the wound.
2Drugs are good. If the wound is such that there will likely be added pain while cleaning and dressing it, take pain medication like Acetaminophen or Ibuprofen (if available). Avoid aspirin, since it has blood-thinning properties that could make things worse. If there’s debris in the wound that needs to be cleared or cleaned, pain medication can help you do a more thorough job, which can aid in reducing the risk of infection.
3Embrace cleanliness. It’s a temptation to bandage up as quickly as possible, but if you don’t clean your wound properly first, you’re just trapping germs that could cause infection, making your situation far worse than when you started out. The first step is to wash your hands, preferably with antibacterial soap. If not, use regular soap or even warm water if there’s nothing else available. Next, wash the wound itself with soap and warm water, but also irrigate the wound with a clean fluid to remove any debris or loose, damaged tissue. Simple saline is best, but distilled or potable water can also be used if that’s all you can find. Hydrogen peroxide is actually not recommended, unless you can follow up with a saline irrigation of the area. Once the wound has been irrigated, use a clean gauze or non-fibrous towel to gently dab and absorb the extra fluid.
4Dressing things up. Dressing the wound properly is of utmost importance, since how well you do it will expedite healing and prevent infection. If you have medicated cream like Terrasil or Amerigel, apply a thin layer over the wound without coating the undamaged outer skin. If you happen to have raw, unpasteurized honey, you can also use that since it has antibacterial properties. Next, apply the dressing — whether it’s sterile gauze, adhesive bandages or a clean piece of cloth. Avoid anything too fibrous or a dressing like a cotton ball that will leave residue in the wound. If the gauze or cloth doesn’t have an adhesive edge, use surgical tape or other tape that will keep moisture at bay. Avoid duct tape, if possible, so as not to make re-dressing the wound more difficult and increase the risk of re-opening the wound when removing the tape.
5Create a follow-up appointment. At the earliest opportunity, seek medical attention if the wound is severe. Two major rules in the aftermath: 1) keep the dressing/wound clean and dry; and 2) change the dressing daily. Check it for foul smells, pus (cloudy, off-white fluid) and continued bleeding. If you see any of this, seek medical attention immediately. When re-dressing your wound, wash your hands with soap and water or use an alcohol-based cleaning solution/gel. Wear surgical gloves if you have them, but make sure they are clean first. Slowly lift the edges of the dressing. If you see it sticking to the wound, gently dab the edges with a moist (not soaking wet) cloth to free it up. Never yank the dressing up. Place your finger on the outer skin and lift the tape across the skin rather than away from it. Move it toward the center of the wound rather than pulling toward the outer edge. Continue to use a moist cloth if the dressing sticks, never allowing moisture to enter the wound. Discard the old dressing and your gloves, wash your hands and then repeat the dressing process.