Editor’s Note: You can learn more basic first aid tips and tricks from the folks at Surf Aid Kits, who built a specialized safety kit every traveling outdoors-lover can use. Check out Surf Aid Kits on Instagram too.
We’ve all been told once or twice to wash a fresh wound with some saltwater. “Saline solution is just saltwater anyway,” we rationalize, and that’s long been used for wound management, “so why not get in the ocean?”
Unfortunately, the ocean is not sterile.
“Basically, you shouldn’t look at swimming in the ocean as a way to cure an open wound,” says Professor Bart Currie, infectious disease and tropical infection expert of Flinders University at Royal Darwin Hospital, Australia.
This doesn’t mean ocean water in itself is dangerous to an open reef cut, or that you have to stay out of the water altogether on a surf trip, but there are definitely some factors you should consider with a fresh wound and the urge to get a few waves:
1. The state of your immune system
As mentioned, the ocean isn’t a sterile environment. If your immune system isn’t functioning properly and is compromised for any reason, you should avoid the ocean altogether when managing open sores that need time to heal (or perhaps haven’t been healing properly).
2. The state of your wound
Even those of us with robust immune systems need to properly clean and dress any wounds exposed to seawater. This is especially true if that sore was already red, inflamed, or even full of pus before coming in contact with seawater.
3. The state of the ocean in which you are swimming
Some parts of the ocean simply have more bacteria present than others. The water in estuaries, near fisheries, sewage plants, drain pipes, surrounded by rocks, or over coral are all environments that are especially risky. Those same risks for higher bacteria concentrations go up after it rains.
4. The temperature of the water.
Warmer water encourages bacterial growth, so warm water simply means the environment is going to be less than sterile, which in turn means you have a higher risk of infection through that open wound. Be aware of this factor especially when on holiday in the tropics.
Overall, jumping in the ocean with a fresh wound is not a way to treat that wound and help it heal. But on top of that, if you’re surfing or swimming in a high-bacteria environment, you run the added risk of infecting that open wound and inviting a series of other possible health complications. Any wound should always first be cleaned, treated, and dressed when out on surf trips.
This piece was presented by Surf Aid Kits.