Next to muscle strains and sprained ankles, minor wounds—cuts, blisters, scrapes, burns, and punctures—lead the list of injuries in the outdoors. They hurt and bleed. In the past, many first-aid courses would recommend cleaning the wound with any available water, like the soothing contents of a river, pond, or lake, but we now know that germs present even in clear water can cause serious infections. So using treated drinking water is always the best option.
Still, there are times when a dip in the river might be worthwhile. Here is the best method for cleaning a cut or other skin injury sustained in the wilderness:
- Manually remove dirt and debris.
- Assess whether the benefit of cleaning the wound with water is worth the risk of creating an infection if that water proves to be contaminated. Is there mud or debris still visible in the wound after manually cleaning it? If yes, the water looks clean, and you’re near someplace where you can thoroughly address the wound, it’s probably OK to flush it out in a stream. But if you’re in the wilderness for a week or more—enough time for an infection to take hold—wait until you can boil and cool water or otherwise disinfect it.
- Apply a thin layer of an antiseptic ointment, such as bacitracin, under the dressing.