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What to Know About Road Rash

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on April 30, 2021

Road rash is a friction wound. It’s caused by a common accident when doing active sports. While it tends to be painful, most of the time it isn’t dangerous to your health. Read more to find out the causes of road rash, how to prevent it, and how to treat it. 

How Road Rash Happens

What is road rash? Road rash is an abrasion caused by friction. It happens to your skin when it gets scraped off by a hard surface or contacts a smooth surface for an extended period. For example, falling while using a treadmill or off of a bicycle can both cause road rash. 

It is unknown if road rash is caused only by friction or also because of heat buildup. Treatment for road rash is the same that is used for both heat and friction burns

Road rash can happen to any area of your body. The most common places that you can get road rash include your knees, elbows, forearms, and hands. Bony areas are the most likely to be affected. 

Road rash can be quite painful. It can cover a large area of your body. There is also a possibility of infection and scarring if left untreated. 

Causes of road rash. Road rash can happen from many different things. It tends to happen more often in warm weather when people are wearing less clothing.

Most of the time, you can get it from a type of sport or activity. Some of these include: 

  • Skateboarding
  • Motorcycling
  • Bicycling 
  • Walking or jogging outdoors 

Items and machines can also cause road rash. Vacuum cleaners are dangerous for small children. Fast-moving factory belts and tourniquets can also cause road rash.

Symptoms of Road Rash

Common road rash. Superficial, or surface, burns are a common type of road rash. Many people who get this type do not find it necessary to go to the hospital. This type of friction burn usually heals in 2 weeks and won’t leave a hypertrophic scar.

More severe types of road rash may produce a hypertrophic scar. Dermabrasion, skin grafting, and free flap procedures are common ways to fix this. 

Traumatic tattoos. Traumatic tattoos can happen with more severe forms of road rash. Traumatic tattoos are when items such as dirt, rocks, glass, or metal get lodged into your skin. 

These pieces of debris can become permanently stuck in your skin if left untreated. The healed skin can take on a bruised appearance. 

The best way to prevent this from happening is to clean your skin as soon as possible. Often it isn’t possible to remove everything yourself. Wound debridement, or surgical scrubbing, may be necessary. This is a procedure that thoroughly cleanses your wound of all foreign items and any dead or infected tissue.

General anesthesia is sometimes provided during this process to reduce pain.

If your road rash isn’t healing after 2 weeks then you may have a deeper injury. This should be examined by your doctor.

How to Treat Road Rash

DIY. Road rash is painful, but it can usually be treated without medical help. The key is to clean and take care of your wound regularly so that it does not get infected.

The steps you can take to treat your road rash are:

  • Wash your hands: This will help prevent an infection from developing in the abrasion. 
  • Gently rinse and clean: Use lukewarm water to clean the area that is affected. If there are foreign objects stuck inside, try to carefully clean them away. 
  • Use an antibiotic ointment: This will help to prevent infection while also acting as a moisturizer. 
  • Bandage your injury: A sterile bandage or gauze will help to protect the area from more damage and potential infection. It will also keep it clean. 
  • Change the bandage often: Use your judgment to change as needed. At least once a day is recommended. If the bandage is stuck to your injury, you can soak it in saltwater (1 teaspoon of salt to 1 gallon of water) to loosen it. 
  • Look for a possible infection: If the pain worsens over time, the wound area stays red or discharges pus, or you have a fever, you should see your doctor. You may need antibiotics. 

Pain management.Ibuprofen and acetaminophen are two over-the-counter medications that can help to manage the pain you may experience from road rash. Your doctor might also give you a prescription for pain medication. 

Your skin might feel itchy, tight, or dry as the abrasion heals. This is normal. Using an alcohol-free moisturizing lotion can help with these issues.

Ways to Prevent Road Rash

Road traffic accidents are the most common cause of road rash. Using protective gear is the best way to prevent injury. 

The recommended steps you can take to prevent road rash include:

  • Wear protective clothing and gear if riding a motorcycle. This includes an appropriate helmet and shoes. 
  • Use elbow and knee pads when playing sports where falling is possible. 
  • Stay within the speed limit when riding a motorcycle or bicycle.
WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Aesthetic Plastic Surgery: “Immediate Debridement of Road Rash Injuries with Versajet® Hydrosurgery: Traumatic Tattoo Prevention?”

Annals of Burns and Fire Disasters: “Traumatic Injuries with Deep Abrasion: ‘A Burn’.”

Annals of the Royal College of Surgeons of England: A dressing for ‘road rash’.”

Journal of Burn Care & Research: “Friction Burn Injuries to the Dorsum of the Hand After Car and Industrial Accidents: Classification, Management, and Functional Recovery.”

MAYO CLINIC: “Treating skin abrasions known as ‘raspberries’.”

UCSF Department of Surgery: “Debridement.”

UWHealth: “Care of Road Rash and Abrasions.”

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