How to Care for a Reef Wound

Coral exoskeletons, as many reef surfers know, can be extremely sharp. While most reefs are deep underwater, far enough away for surfers to be in danger, the occasional rough wave could send somebody several yards below the surface. When this happens, you may scratch a foot, elbow, or other part of your body on coral. While the wound may look benign at first, it can quickly develop into a painful, infectious, and dangerous situation.

Coral cut symptoms differ from regular cuts. Typically, the skin will become inflamed, red, tender, swollen, and sometimes itchy. If the wound becomes infected, it may develop into a sore or ulcer with pus. If the redness around the wound expands past the localized area, the infection is spreading and requires immediate emergency medical attention. Similarly, red streaks moving upward from a wound will require a trip to the emergency room.

Preventing Infection from a Coral Cut

Coral cuts are common for reef surfers, but a small incision can quickly turn into a visit to the hospital. Warm, tropical waters may feel nice to the uninjured surfers, but this environment is full of microscopic organisms that can cause harm. If your skin is sliced open while underwater, these organisms may seize the opportunity to enter the body.

Additionally, because coral formations are both rigid and sharp, cutting yourself on a mass will leave behind a small amount of animal protein and calcareous material inside the wound. This means that an otherwise small, harmless-appearing cut can develop into a serious infection. Listen to a board-certified dermatologist about skin infections, they can become dangerous very quickly. Plus, some corals contain nematocysts, which is an organ some marine animals have that contains an ejectable threat, like a stinger. If you cut yourself on one of these corals, you will sustain a more significant injury.

Coral Cut Wound Checklist

  1. As soon as you are out of the water, scrub your wound with soap and water. It is important to do this as soon as possible after coming in contact with the coral. Before scrubbing, take care to remove all visible pieces of coral that may have become lodged in the wound.
  • If you have a First Aid kit on hand, use isopropyl alcohol to clean the wound further. This should kill some of the microscopic organism that may have entered the wound, and it can reduce the overall effect of any toxins a coral may have.
  • Pat the wound dry and cover with a gauze bandage. If the bleeding has not yet stopped, visit your nearest hospital. While rarer than the occasional scrape, some reef surfers can get cut up pretty badly if they have a bad fall. The best way to heal the wound and receive proper care is to visit a medical professional at an emergency room or hospital.
  • If you did not need to visit the hospital, rinse the wound daily and apply an antibiotic ointment, like bacitracin, 3-4 times per day. Keep track of your daily use in case a doctor needs to know later.
  • See your doctor at the first signs of an infection. Typically, oral antibiotics are prescribed to prevent and rid the body of infection. If you don’t see any evidence of an infection, an over-the-counter steroid ointment may be used as itch relief as the wound heals.

If your wound does not show signs of an infection, but it has not healed after a week or two, make an appointment with your doctor. This may not be an emergency, but it could indicate a different type of infection.