How Should I Clean a Wound?

If you or your child gets a cut, scrape, or burn, it’s important to clean the wound properly right away to prevent infection. Here’s how to do it in five easy steps.

Step 1. Wash Your Hands

Clean your hands using soap and water or hand sanitizer, then put on disposable gloves, if possible. Do this before you touch your wound or treat someone else’s burn, cut, or scrape. Clean, covered hands help prevent infections.

Step 2. Apply Gentle Pressure

This step applies only if the wound is bleeding. Skip this step for burns.

Use a clean cloth or sterile gauze to gently press on the wound until bleeding stops (small cuts and scrapes may not require pressure). Elevate (raise) the affected part, if possible. If blood oozes through the cloth or gauze, leave the covering on the wound. Place another clean piece on top and continue to apply pressure. Seek medical attention right away if:

  • The wound is on a child under a year old
  • Bleeding is severe or doesn’t stop with gentle pressure
  • Your wound has jagged edges
  • The cut is deep, gaping, or across a joint
  • The wound was caused by a dirty object or was the result of a projectile or something impaling the skin
  • The wound was caused by a human or animal bite
  • The wound happened on the face or genital area

Stitches are usually needed for cuts longer than ½ inch. If you have a cut on your face that’s ¼ inch or longer, a doctor may close it with surgical glue or sutures.

Step 3. Rinse with Water

You don’t need hydrogen peroxide or iodine products to thoroughly clean a simple cut or scrape. Just follow these steps:

  • Rinse the wound in clear water to loosen and remove dirt and debris.
  • Use a soft washcloth and mild soap to clean around the wound. Don’t place soap in the wound. That can hurt and cause irritation.
  • Use tweezers to remove any dirt or debris that still appears after washing. Clean the tweezers first with isopropyl alcohol. Don’t pick at the wound. If the wound can’t be cleaned, call a doctor.

If you have a burn, rinse the area under cool (not cold) water for 10 to 15 minutes. Or, place a cool cloth on the burn for the same length of time. See your doctor if any large blisters form. Go to the emergency room right away if you have any major burns.

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Step 4. Use an Antibiotic Cream or Ointment

Over-the-counter skin antibiotics, like Neosporin or Polysporin, help keep the skin moist and ward off infection. It’s not always necessary to use these if you have a minor cut or scrape. But applying a thin layer can boost your body’s natural healing process and reduce scarring. Doctors may recommend using a topical antibiotic if you have burn blisters that break open.

Some people are allergic to certain ingredients in these products. Stop using the cream or ointment if a rash appears.

Step 5. Bandage the Wound -- Sometimes

You don’t need to bandage every boo-boo. If you have a minor scrape or cut, clean it and leave it alone. Otherwise, place a clean, sterile, nonstick bandage on the wound after cleaning it. This helps keep out germs. You can find a variety of bandages and tape at your local drugstore. Paper tape may be less irritating to sensitive skin. Change the bandage at least once a day or when it's wet or dirty.

Be extra careful to cover any cuts or wounds on areas that tend to get dirty or germy, like your hands or feet. You also want to bandage any wound that would rub on clothing, such as a cut on your knee. Always cover large wounds.

After You Clean the Wound

Don’t pick at any scabs -- they’re part of the healing process. Picking at them can leave a scar.

Call your doctor if you notice any of the following symptoms. They could mean the wound is infected:

  • Increased redness or swelling
  • Pain that gets worse
  • Skin around the wound feels warm
  • Unpleasant odor when cleaning the wound
  • Unusual or increased drainage
  • Fever or chills

If you have a burn, or a wound that breaks the skin, check with your doctor to see if you need a tetanus booster.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on April 28, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

Intermountain Healthcare: “Chronic Wounds.”

Mayo Clinic: “Cuts and Scrapes: First Aid,” “Burns: First Aid.”

Familydoctor.org: “First Aid: Cuts, Scrapes, and Stitches.”

Seattle Children’s Hospital: “Skin Injury.”

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