An open wound is an injury involving an external or internal break in body tissue, usually involving the skin. Nearly everyone will experience an open wound at some point in their lives. Most open wounds are minor and can be treated at home.
Falls, accidents with sharp objects or tools, and car accidents are the most common causes of open wounds. In the case of a serious accident, call 911 or seek immediate medical attention, particularly if there’s a lot of bleeding or if bleeding lasts for more than 20 minutes.
There are five types of open wounds, which are classified depending on their cause.
An abrasion occurs when the skin rubs or scrapes against a rough or hard surface. Road rash is an example of an abrasion. There’s usually not a lot of bleeding, but the wound needs to be scrubbed and cleaned to avoid infection.
A sharp object, such as a knife, shard of glass, or razor blade, causes an incision. Incisions bleed a lot and quickly. A deep incision can damage tendons, ligaments, and muscles.
A laceration is a deep cut or tearing of the skin. Accidents with knives, tools, and machinery are frequent causes of lacerations. The bleeding is rapid and extensive.
A puncture is a small hole caused by a long, pointy object, such as a nail, needle, or ice pick. Sometimes, a bullet can cause a puncture wound. Punctures may not bleed much, but these wounds can be deep enough to damage internal organs. If you have a puncture wound (even just a small one), visit your doctor to get a tetanus booster shot and prevent infection.
An avulsion is a partial or complete tearing away of skin and tissue. Avulsions usually occur during violent accidents, such as body-crushing accidents, explosions, and gunshots. They bleed heavily and rapidly.
Home care for minor wounds
Minor wounds can be treated at home. First, wash and disinfect the wound to remove all dirt and debris. Use direct pressure and elevation to control bleeding and swelling. When wrapping the wound, always use a sterile dressing or bandage (very minor wounds may heal fine without a bandage). You’ll need to keep the wound clean and dry for five days. You should also make sure you get plenty of rest.
Pain typically accompanies a wound. You can take acetaminophen as directed on the package. Avoid aspirin products, since they can cause or prolong bleeding. Apply ice if you have bruising or swelling, and avoid picking at scabs. If you’re spending time outdoors in the sun, use sun protection factor (SPF) 30 sunscreen over the area until it’s completely healed.
When to see a doctor
Although you can treat some wounds at home, you should see a doctor if:
- an open wound is deeper than 1/2 inch
- the bleeding does not stop with direct pressure
- the bleeding lasts longer than 20 minutes
- the bleeding is the result of a serious accident
Your doctor may use different techniques to treat your open wound. After cleaning and possibly numbing the area with anesthetic, your doctor may close the wound using skin glue, sutures, or stitches. You may receive a tetanus booster shot if you have a puncture wound.
Other treatments for an open wound include pain medication and penicillin. Your doctor may also prescribe penicillin or another antibiotic if there’s an infection or high risk for developing an infection. In some cases, surgery might be needed. If a body part is severed, it should be brought to the hospital for possible reattachment. Wrap the body part in moist gauze and pack it in ice.
When you leave the doctor’s office, you might have bandages and dressings. It’s important to always wash your hands and work on a clean surface when changing bandages and dressings. Disinfect and dry the wound thoroughly before dressing it again. Dispose of old dressings and bandages in plastic bags.
The main complication of an open wound is the risk of infection. Call your doctor immediately if you've had a puncture wound or serious accident and you’re showing signs of infection. These signs include continuous bleeding and an increase in redness, pain, or swelling.
You may have an infection if the wound area becomes dark and dry or bigger and deeper. Other signs to look for include:
- an increase in drainage
- thick green, yellow, or brown pus
- pus with a foul odor
- a fever over 100.4ºF for more than four hours
- a tender lump in your groin or armpit
- a wound that isn’t healing
Your doctor will prescribe an antibiotic if infection from bacteria develops. In serious cases, surgery may be required to remove infected tissue and sometimes the surrounding tissue as well.
Conditions that can develop from an open wound include the following.
- Lockjaw is caused by an infection from the bacteria that cause tetanus. Lockjaw can cause muscle contractions in the jaw and neck.
- A necrotizing subcutaneous infection can develop. This is a severe infection that can lead to gangrene, the loss and death of tissue.
- Gas gangrene, a type of wet gangrene caused by the bacteria known as Clostridia, can occur from an open wound.
- Cellulitis, an infection of the skin, can also occur.
Whether you have a minor or a more serious open wound, it’s important to take quick action. Some open wounds can be treated at home, but this isn’t always the case. You need medical attention if you have a deep cut or if you are bleeding a lot. This ensures you receive the most appropriate treatment and reduces your risk of complications and infection.