The skinny on preventing skin infections: decontaminating scrapes and scratches

I heaved a sigh of relief. My children and their friend greeted my husband and me at the door. The children had just baby-sat themselves. I thought everyone was unscathed until I saw one of my children covered in band aids. Apparently, although I had admonished them not to ride anything with wheels and not to climb on anything above the ground, the child with the band aids had tripped over her own feet during a benign game of four square.

“Did you wash the scrapes?” I asked.

“Yes,” the kids said, proudly nodding. They knew the first line of defense against infection is to wash out a wound. But as it turns out, they had only dabbed the cuts with wet paper towels. Aghast, I propelled the injured child off to the bathroom and hosed down the cuts. Too many times I have seen a minor scrape turn into a major skin infection.

When a wound is not thoroughly cleansed, the bacteria which normally live on skin (Staphylococcus or Streptococcus) find an opportunity to enter the body. Even a mosquito bite can turn into a raging puss filled mess if scratched often and not cleansed enough. These days, some children carry on their skin a type of Staphylococcus called MRSA (Methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus), since this germ can be tough to treat, a deep cleansing is more important than ever.
While infection is rarely introduced from whatever cuts the child, exceptions include cuts caused by animal or human bites (the human mouth is particularly filthy) or cuts caused by old, dirty or rusty metal.  Tetanus lives in non-oxygenated places such as soil. So for deep or very dirty wounds, make sure your child’s tetanus vaccine is up to date.

Despite what many believe, wiping the surface of a cut with a wipe is not adequate to cleanse a wound. “Irrigate, irrigate, irrigate,” a wise Emergency Department physician explained to me when I was a resident in training. “I have never had someone return with a wound infection,” she said proudly. In the emergency room, saline is usually used, but at home soap and running water are effective. Stay away from hydrogen peroxide because it can irritate rather than help the skin. Stay away from rubbing alcohol because it hurts and is not necessary if soap and water are used.

So, even if your child just took a shower, wash him again if he scrapes himself. The sooner you irrigate even the tiniest of wounds, the better.  An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of antibiotics.

Naline Lai, MD and Julie Kardos, MD

© 2010 Two Peds in a Pod®

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