How to Treat Burns, Cuts, and Stings — Your Essential Summer Guide

Summer barbecues, outdoor games, and soaking in the sun mean more accidents and injuries. Here are essential tips on how to treat burns, cuts, and stings, what to keep in your first aid kit, and how to get the most out of your summer lovin’ fun.

How to Treat Burns

It’s not uncommon for summer barbecuing and sunbathing to lead to accidental burns. To avoid bigger problems down the road, take care of burns right away with the following steps.

Step 1: Cool it

Start cooling your burn with room temperature water or a gauze soaked in saline solution. NEVER start with ice. Ice can cause frostbite and damage the skin. Saline washes for wounds and gauze are easily available at most pharmacies, and it’s smart to keep a supply handy in your home medicine chest.

Step 2: Clean it

After cooling your burn, you need to gently clean the area with mild soap and water.

Step 3: Antibiotics — to use or not to use?

Once you’ve cleaned your burn, you’ll want to make a decision about whether or not to use an antibiotic ointment. These are some basic guidelines:

Minor sunburns and superficial burns where your skin is still intact do NOT need an antibiotic ointment. You can go directly to the next step of dressing your wound with gauze.

More serious burns where your skin is no longer intact and has been broken NEED an antibiotic ointment. You can begin with an over-the-counter topical antibiotic like Polysporin (bacitracin) or Neosporin, but for complicated burns, I recommend asking your doctor for a prescription antibiotic. They may prescribe Silvadene (silver sulfadiazine) as a first-line treatment, but with deeper wounds — where infection involving MRSA bacteria (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) is of a greater concern — you might get Bactroban (mupirocin) instead.

Step 4: Cover it

Basic dressings for burns and cuts goes like this:

  1. Start with your topical antibiotic ointment (if you need it).
  2. Cover that with a non-stick gauze (like Adaptic or Telfa) that’s been soaked in saline wash. Minor burns really only require a basic gauze, but if you prefer more protection, you can try a treated gauze like Xeroform. Xeroform is a petroleum-based gauze infused with bismuth. It provides a barrier to outside air and prevents bacterial infections.
  3. Cover that first layer of gauze with a second layer of fluffed dry gauze.
  4. Then, cover all of that with an elastic gauze roll like Kerlix.

How to Treat Cuts and Scrapes

With summer comes time for play, but that also means more opportunities for injuries. In case you get hurt, follow these steps to ensure quick healing and minimal scarring.

Step 1: Clean it

Wash out your wound with a saline wash. Irrigation is the best way to prevent infections. You can easily buy isotonic (normal) saline wound washes from pharmacies, but tap water is okay if you don’t have any handy.

DO NOT make the mistake of using antiseptic solutions like chlorhexidine and hydrogen peroxide to wash your wound. These damage your skin, slow healing, and provide little benefit against bacterial infections. Likewise, numbing and cleaning sprays are no good — they can also irritate your wound and delay healing. Your #1 rule is keep it simple.

Step 2: Cover it

If you think your cut needs to be repaired with stitches (sutures), you NEED to get that done within 19 hours of injury. That’s around the time limit for successful healing, but it may vary depending on your cut and where it’s located. Your healthcare provider will also give you instructions for how to care for the sutured area.

If you don’t need stitches, you’ll still want to cover your wound and keep it moist. Moist cuts and wounds heal faster than wounds that are dried out, and covered up wounds heal 40% more quickly than wounds left open. Covered up wounds also tend to result in less scarring.

Covering a scrape or cut is similar to how you’d cover a burn. Moisten gauze with saline wash before placing it onto the wound. (Dressings like Xeroform and Adaptic are great.) Then cover this first layer of gauze with a second layer of gauze and a final layer of tape or other adhesive. Just to be safe, keep some 2×2 inch and 4×4 inch gauze dressings and elastic gauze rolls like Kerlix ready in your first aid kit.

How to Treat Stings

Lastly, concerns about rising jellyfish populations on both US coasts may keep some people from getting into the water, but if you’re one of brave, take these tips with you. Here’s what you should do if you are stung by a jellyfish or stingray.

Jellyfish Stings

First, know this. Urine, baking soda, and alcohol do not work — in fact, urine and alcohol worsen burning and pain.

With jellyfish stings, you need to soak the area in hot water (110-113°F) for about 20 minutes. Cold water won’t work. Instead of hot water, common household items like vinegar (acetic acid) or papain meat tenderizer may also help relieve the pain from a sting. There are also many other popular remedies out there, but evidence regarding their effectiveness isn’t consistent.

Stingray Stings

Stingray envenomations — or injections of venom by a stingray sting — most commonly occur in Southern California, but stingray stings are common in California in general.

How do you treat it? Hot or warm water immersion. Studies show that soaking your sting in hot water relieves pain in 69% of all cases.

Take these tips with you when you go on your next summer adventure. If you need any additional help with your injuries, or if you feel like they’re not healing or getting worse, don’t hesitate to seek care from a healthcare provider.

Have fun!

Dr O.

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