How to Clean and Field Dress a Wound

field dressing a leg wound

Whether you are at home, on a hike, or on a hike that has become a dire survival situation, knowing how to appropriately care for wounds can save you everything from a trip to the emergency room to yours (or someone else’s) life. While cleaning and dressing an open wound, keep in mind that everything needs to be clean: your hands, any surgical or cutting instruments, the area you’re working on, and all bandages need to be as clean as possible to prevent infection.

Prepare the Wounded Area

Once the wound has been located, remove clothing from the area by trimming with scissors or completely removing the article of clothing. Dirty clothing can put the wound in contact with harmful materials like debris and infection-causing bacteria. Remove any remaining foreign objects you see from the wound. Special care should be taken with sharp materials, to avoid causing further injury upon removal.

Stop the Bleeding

Using a clean cloth, such as gauze, apply light pressure to the wound. This will stop up the flow of blood from the wound. Be careful to not apply too much pressure; this can cause tissue death and delay proper healing at the wound site. If the cloth soaks through with blood, switch it out with another clean cloth. Repeat until bleeding has stopped. Do not use a tourniquet unless bleeding is extremely severe, as in an arterial bleed. In this case, use the tourniquet sparingly and use a clean cloth, in tandem, to help stop bleeding.

Clean the Wound

Once the bleeding has stopped, use a cleaning solution to carefully rinse the wound. Both antiseptic wash and saline solution will work for this. In the event that neither is available, you can wash the area with antibacterial soap and lukewarm water. Slowly pour your cleaning solution over the wound; never rub or pat the area. Any remaining debris can be removed with clean tweezers, so long as it isn’t deeply imbedded. If the wound starts to bleed again, apply a clean cloth until the bleeding has stopped. Debris from an urban injury, like road rash or glass cuts, can be extremely tough to get out and can cause severe tissue and internal damage if removed incorrectly. Use extreme caution for these instances.

Dress the Wound

To dress the wound, use a triple antibiotic ointment to cover it. The ointment will help protect against infection, while keeping the skin from sticking to the bandage. For a small wound, a simple bandage will suffice. If the wound is too large for a regular bandage, use gauze secured with waterproof tape. Repeat this step every twelve hours. Fresh bandages and triple antibiotic ointment help prevent infection and scarring.

Remember that, if you are not in a situation where field dressing is absolutely necessary and emergency medical care is available, do not attempt it. An expert in injury law, attorney T. Neal Brunt advises against performing certain procedures unless absolutely necessary, as you may be held responsible if your efforts put an injured person in further danger or were performed without permission.

Accidents can occur anytime, anywhere. If you plan on spending extended time outdoors, perhaps hunting or camping, it’s a good idea to carry a first aid kit. Keep your kit stocked with bandages, gauze, tape, antiseptic and triple antibiotic ointment. Include a first aid kit in any emergency supplies or go-bags you have, as you’ll never know when you’ll need it. Keep in mind that the key to successfully managing an open wound, in combination with the steps above, is to remain calm and work quickly.

Emma is a freelance writer living in Boston. When she manages to tear herself away from the computer, she enjoys baking, rock climbing, and film noir.

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