How do I clean a wound?

A wound is a break in the skin. A plaster or larger dressing is usually all that is needed to stop a wound bleeding. However, you might need to apply pressure to the area, and if an arm or leg is affected, you should raise it above heart level.

Before putting on a plaster or other dressing, you will need to clean the wound. Follow the steps below to ensure that it does not become infected:

  • Wash and dry your hands thoroughly.
  • If you have any cuts on your own hands, you should cover them and wear disposable gloves. 
  • If treating someone else, tell them what you are doing.
  • Make sure that the person is sitting or lying down.
  • If the wound has something embedded in it, leave it in place until you seek medical advice (see below).
  • Clean the wound under running tap water, saline (a salt water solution) or use an alcohol-free wipe, gauze pad or soft cloth, but do not use antiseptic, because it may damage the skin.
  • Soak the gauze or cloth in the saline solution or water, and gently dab or wipe the skin with it.
  • Gently pat the area dry using a clean towel or a pad of tissues, but nothing fluffy such as a cotton wool ball, where strands of material can get stuck to the wound.
  • Apply a sterile dressing, such as a bandage or plaster.
  • If blood soaks through the bandage, leave it in place and another bandage, and continue to apply pressure on the wound.

When to seek medical advice

You should always get medical advice if the injury:

  • does not stop bleeding
  • is very large or very deep
  • has something embedded in it 
  • is to an artery or on a joint crease
  • is red, sore and painful, or has pus coming out (it may be infected)
  • is an old wound that looks like it might be infected
  • was caused by a bite (all animal and human bites need medical attention)

Most human bites are the result of a "closed fist injury", where one person punches another person in the teeth and cuts their hand. Typical symptoms include small cuts to the hand and red, swollen and painful skin.

If you are not sure how serious your injury is, it is best to get a healthcare professional to check it. If you have a large wound or a deep cut, they will need to examine it carefully to assess how serious it is. They will also clean the wound thoroughly before stitching it up.

For further advice about cuts and wounds, you can visit your nearest walk-in centre or minor injury unit (MIU), or you can call NHS 111.

Tetanus vaccination

It is very important to check that you are up to date with your tetanus jabs if your skin is broken in an injury, or if you are bitten. You will be given a booster jab if your GP thinks you need one.

Further information:

Page last reviewed: 16/02/2015

Next review due: 15/02/2017