Common wound care myths busted

A man wraps a wound on his hand

We’ve all suffered from everyday cuts and wounds at some point in our lives. Minor wounds can be painful and, when infected, can lead to more serious issues. That’s why knowledge about how to treat cuts and wounds can help you deal with them better, ensuring faster healing with less pain.

No matter the cause of the wound, I've always been intrigued by the common myths and misconceptions people believe about healing wounds. The top common wound care myths I hear from my patients include the following.

Myth #1: Use rubbing alcohol and/or hydrogen peroxide to clean and disinfect wounds.

These liquids may kill bacteria, but they can also be harmful. Rubbing alcohol and hydrogen peroxide can damage surrounding healthy tissue and shouldn’t be used to clean your wounds.

That said, the best thing you can do is to wash out the wound with a large quantity of warm, soapy water as soon as possible. The literature shows that tap water is fine for this. You can get in the shower or let warm, soapy water flow through the wound in the sink, making sure you flush the wound bed thoroughly.

When patients come to the emergency room and haven't irrigated their wounds, we may even have them do this immediately in our sink in the room.

Myth #2: Keep your wound completely dry to heal.

Wounds shouldn’t be completely dry. Along this line, it’s okay for the wound to be moist, but you don't want it to be wet (i.e., soaking in dirty bath water). Use a little topical antibiotic ointment, such as Neosporin or Bacitracin, or plain petroleum jelly on the wound to keep it moist and help it heal. After you clean your wound as above, cover it with a bandage to keep it clean. Make sure to remove the dressing or bandage once daily to assess and reclean the wound (unless you use a hydro-seal type bandage designed to stay in place after a wound is completely clean).

Myth #3: A topical antibiotic cream improves wound healing.

This may have some truth, but some have argued that the moist wound environment, rather than the antibiotic, promotes wound healing. A study comparing white petroleum ointments (such as Vaseline or Aquaphor) with an over-the-counter antibiotic ointment (such as Polysporin, Neosporin or Bacitracin) showed no significant difference in wound infection rate.

NOTE: Using over-the-counter antibiotic ointment on the wound is OK if you are not allergic.

6 signs your wound is not healing right

Myth #4: Keep the wound open and exposed to air to help it heal better.

This is a myth that has persisted. As far back as 1990, it’s been shown that dressings that don’t allow air or moisture to penetrate in or out of the wound (known as occlusive dressings) are associated with a significantly lower infection rate. In addition, this style of dressing has been shown to speed healing, reduce pain and improve patient quality of life, compared with gauze dressings. Having a wound exposed is OK as long as you’re sure it won't get dirty again.

Myth #5: Applying butter to burn wounds helps ease the pain.

You should probably avoid anything other than soapy water for cleaning and petroleum jelly or antibiotic ointment. The use of butter for burns dates back many years but has no basis in science. When it comes to burns and wounds, hold the butter, please.

Myth #6: Saltwater helps to cleanse and heal a wound.

As I recently saw during my deployment to provide medical assistance during Hurricane Ian, many were exposed to storm surge, and the seawater was contaminated, contributing to the risk of infection and delay in wound healing. Saltwater isn’t a good choice other than for jellyfish stings, when fresh water (like tap or bottled water) can cause the stingers to continue to release into the body. In addition, contact with saltwater may swell the skin, impacting wound closure.

Overall, my advice when it comes to everyday cuts and wounds is to always cover and protect your wound and keep it moist to give it the best chance of healing quickly. Please contact your primary care provider if you think your wound is infected or not healing.

Need medical care quickly, but don’t need an emergency department?

Ohio State Advanced Immediate Care provides convenient, walk-in care for common conditions and serious, non-life-threatening illnesses and injuries — no appointment needed.

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