Skin tears are wounds that may look like large cuts or scrapes. They’re considered acute wounds. This means they occur suddenly and typically heal in an expected fashion over time.
However, for some people, skin tears can become complex, chronic wounds. This means they have trouble healing.
Skin tears may be partial thickness. That’s when the top layer of skin (the epidermis) separates from the underlying layer (the dermis).
They may also be full thickness. That’s when both the epidermis and dermis separate from the underlying tissues. This type usually occurs on the arms, back of hands, and elbows, where the skin is thin.
Trauma causes skin tears. Examples include:
- hitting something (blunt force)
- getting cut or scraped (called shearing)
- friction from the skin rubbing
While these traumas may cause minor cuts or bruising in most people, they can cause skin tears to occur more easily when the skin is thin or fragile.
Skin tears often look like a big cut or scrape. They might be totally open or have a skin flap that partially covers the wound.
Examples of skin tears are shown below.
Skin tears are most common in older adults because they tend to have more fragile skin that occurs with age. Newborns and those who are highly active are also at risk.
Other risk factors include:
- being female
- having a chronic illness
- having blood vessel, heart, or lung problems
- history of skin tears
- long-term corticosteroid use
- history of falls
- dry skin
Once you have a skin tear, you can take precautions to keep it from getting infected.
Keep your wound clean and covered. This will help your skin heal and avoid further injury or infection.
If you have any signs of infection, get medical help immediately. Signs of infection include:
- foul odor
- worsening pain
Remember that a skin tear can take several weeks to fully heal. Take care not to bump into it or do any activity that might strain the tear.
You may be able to treat minor skin tears at home. However, it’s often best to see a healthcare provider, especially if you’re at risk for infection.
First, gently clean the skin tear with a sterile water or isotonic saline solution. If it’s a smaller and more superficial tear, a gentle soap and water may be used.
Then fully cover the tear, but don’t use an adhesive bandage directly on the wound. Instead, use gauze that has petrolatum in it (you can find it at many drugstores). Keep it in place with dry gauze on top.
If there’s a skin flap on the tear, try to gently place that back over the tear before covering it. This will help the skin heal and grow back faster.
When to see a doctor
See a healthcare provider if you have:
- signs of infection, such as fever, chills, aches, foul-smelling drainage, pus, or worsening pain
- a large and/or full thickness tear (both the epidermis and dermis layers of skin are separated from tissue below)
- bleeding that doesn’t stop
- other health concerns, including a weakened immune system
A healthcare provider may use a special dressing on the wound to help with healing. If there’s a skin flap, they may use skin glue to hold the flap in place. They won’t use stitches because your skin is most likely very fragile in that area.
They can prescribe antibiotics if you have an infection, and they’ll tell you what to watch out for. A healthcare provider may also give you a tetanus shot depending on how you got the skin tear and your vaccination status.
While you heal, they can work with you to help you figure out how to prevent skin tears in the future.
The best way to prevent skin tears from becoming chronic wounds is to prevent skin tears from occurring in the first place.
Wear long sleeves and long pants to protect your skin. Also try to wear clothes without zippers to prevent your skin from catching in them.
Keep your skin moist. Use soapless or pH-balanced cleansing products instead of soap. Don’t take excessively long showers or bathe more than you need to. Also use a hypoallergenic moisturizing lotion at least twice a day.
Eat a healthy diet with lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to ensure you get the nutrients you need.
If you get a small wound, be careful to make sure it doesn’t get worse. Keep it clean and covered, and try to avoid catching it on anything.
It’s recommended you move things that create a tripping or fall hazard, too:
- Keep floors clear.
- Pad sharp edges in your home, such as those on furniture.
- Ensure your home is well-lit.
If they’re properly taken care of, skin tears can heal without incident in a few weeks. Be sure to keep your skin tear covered and clean to prevent infection. Get medical help if you have a large tear or signs of infection.