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What is a rope burn?

A rope burn is a type of friction burn. It’s caused by the rapid or repeated movement of coarse rope rubbing against skin. This abrades the skin, resulting in:

  • redness
  • irritation
  • blisters
  • bleeding

Rope burns can be superficial, meaning they only affect the top layers of skin. Though less likely, they can be deep, going through the dermis layer and exposing bone.

Rope burns can occur during many activities, such as:

  • tug-of-war
  • aerial acrobatics
  • rock climbing
  • handling farm animals
  • camping or boating

Rug burns are another type of friction burn.

Supplies to have on hand for treating rope burns include:

  • clean water
  • topical aloe
  • sterile gauze pads
  • cloth gauze tape
  • tweezer

Take these steps if you get a rope burn:

1. Assess the wound

Determine the severity of the rope burn. The size and depth of the wound determine whether it is a first-, second-, third-, or fourth-degree burn.

Any rope burn that is larger than 2 to 3 inches or deeper than the skin’s uppermost layer should be looked at by a doctor.

If medical support is necessary, clean and cover the wound to avoid infection, and then call your local emergency services or go to an emergency facility immediately.

You should also seek immediate medical treatment for a rope burn accompanied by any of these symptoms:

  • extreme pain
  • dehydration
  • charred, black appearance
  • white, waxy appearance
  • exposure of tissue or bone
  • heavy bleeding
  • dirt or rope fragments within the wound that can’t be easily removed

2. Clean the wound

All rope burns should be cleaned using cool running water. This helps remove debris, bacteria, and rope fragments from the wound. If running water is unavailable, use a cool compress or standing, sterilized water instead. Don’t ice the wound, as this may further damage tissue.

If there are rope fragments that don’t rinse out, you can leave them intact for a doctor to remove or try to gently remove them yourself with a sterilized tweezer. Be careful to avoid pulling or further abrading the wound while attempting to remove fragments or debris.

3. Apply aloe topically

Most often topical aloe will be enough to help with pain. Don’t use butter, which might contain bacteria and lead to infection.

4. Cover the wound

Keep the wound clean and dry with a gauze bandage or wrap. Wrap the wounded area lightly, rather than tightly.

Rope burns may continue to hurt for a few days. Over-the-counter pain medications can help alleviate pain. Make sure not to exceed the recommended dosage. If your pain level increases or doesn’t improve within five days, see a doctor.

You will need to keep the bandage clean and dry. Sterile bandages should be changed once a day or more often if they get wet or become soiled.

Reapply a layer of topical aloe with each bandage change, being careful not to put pressure on the wound.

Continue to assess the wound. If redness, puffiness, or signs of infection appear, see a doctor.

Don’t pop any blisters that appear in the wound.

Monitor yourself for signs of dehydration, and drink lots of water.

The wound should heal within 7 to 10 days. You can stop covering it once the skin is completely healed over.

If your rope burn requires treatment from a doctor, follow your doctor’s specific recommendations.

Many rope burns are superficial and respond to at-home treatment without scarring. Severe burns that require medical attention should be cleaned and covered immediately, prior to seeing a doctor.

If any of the following apply, seek medical help:

  • You have a second-degree burn and haven’t had a tetanus shot in five years or longer.
  • You’re in significant pain or are concerned about the rope burn.
  • Your burn is very deep or large. Deep burns may not hurt because the nerve endings in the dermis have been burned away. Third- and fourth-degree burns are medical emergencies.
  • The burn appears to be infected.
  • The burn can’t be cleaned out completely.

The severity of the rope burn will determine how long it takes to heal. First-degree burns typically take three to six days to heal, but may take up to 10 days in some cases.

Second-degree burns can take two to three weeks or longer to heal. Some may require surgical removal of dead skin or skin grafting.

Third- and fourth-degree burns require skin grafting and extensive healing time.

Keeping the burned area clean and covered will help shield it from infection. If the wound does become infected, it will require medical attention.

Signs of infection include:

  • redness or puffiness that spreads out from the wound site
  • swelling
  • oozing
  • increasing levels of pain, or pain that seems to spread out from the initial wound
  • fever

One of the best ways to prevent rope burns is to cover your skin with clothing anywhere it may come into contact with rope. This includes wearing gloves, long pants, and long-sleeved shirts, even in warm weather.

Taking a commonsense approach to rope safety during sports and activities is also important:

  • Avoid getting tangled up in ropes on boat decks
  • Use caution when walking around ropes in campgrounds, and avoiding stepping in rope loops.
  • Explain to children that ropes can be dangerous if not handled correctly before engaging in rope activities.
  • Wear gloves when playing tug-of-war. Rope burns can happen quickly if everyone is pulling on a rope at the same time.
  • Never grab at a rope that’s being pulled away from you by a person, boat, or vehicle, unless your life is in danger.

To help treatment for a rope burn, have a well-stocked first aid kit on hand, which usually includes sterile water and gauze.

You can purchase pre-stocked first aid kits, but make sure to replace supplies as they run out, and also check that the kits contain all of the essentials needed to treat a wound.

Many rope burns are topical and can be treated at home. Others require a doctor’s care.

Always clean a rope burn thoroughly and cover it with a sterile gauze bandage to avoid infection. If any signs of infection do occur, call your doctor.