First Aid for Surfers: How to Care for Reef Cuts

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Some of the best waves in the world break along coral reefs. Fiji, Indonesia, Hawaii are all renowned for their shallow, heavy waves – as well as the lacerations that come with them. Unfortunately, the shallow reef is often precisely what makes the wave so perfect.  If you surf tropical reef breaks enough, you’ll inevitably leave some skin behind.

Reef cuts in the tropics can get infected easily. The reefs are alive with coral polyps, bacteria, and other debris that is smaller than the eye can see. Even if your wound looks clean, you’ll need to tend to it constantly and clean it immediately after wiping out.

In this article, we’ll show you how to treat a reef cut so that you can get back out in the water ASAP.


Supplies: A pair of sterile First Aid Only 17-005 Bandage Scissors and Forcep Tweezers Combo Pack, tweezers (sterilized), fresh water, Hydrogen Peroxide Antiseptic Solution 16 Fl. Oz (Pack of 1), Heinz All Natural Distilled White Vinegar with 5% Acidity (32 fl oz Bottle), non-adhesive dressing, Betadine Antiseptic Ointment 25g, syringe

Clean the wound thoroughly – more thoroughly than you think. Using a small pair of manicure scissors, cut away any flaps of dead skin. Use tweezers and/or a syringe to remove any large, visible pieces of debris. Wash the wound with fresh water and white vinegar to neutralize any toxins that you could’ve gotten from live coral. You can also use diluted hydrogen peroxide or iodine.

Yes, it will probably hurt like hell to clean the wounds as thoroughly as they need to be. Cleaning them properly the first time will get you back in the water sooner and can prevent serious infections. You can always kick back with a drink and ask a friend to clean them for you.

Larger wounds should be addressed immediately. Close smaller to medium-sized gashes with adhesive strips. Larger wounds should be dressed and sutured by a medical professional as soon as possible.

Apply triple antiseptic cream on the wounds multiple times per day. Don’t forget the smaller wounds – even tiny cuts can get very infected.

Cover and keep the wounds protected. Most reef cuts happen while you’re on vacation. After just a few hours in Bali, you’ll see tourists spotting their battle wounds from the reef.

Cuts on the feet or lower part of the legs are especially prone to infection because of their proximity to the dirty floor. Swap your crop top for a lightweight T-shirt, your flip flops for tennis shoes, and your shorts for thin cotton pants while your wounds heal. Dress them with non-adhesive dressing to keep dirt out.

How to tell if a reef cut is infected. Check every wound for signs of swelling, heat, redness (especially a dark red border), and pus or discharge. Red lines spreading around the wound are also signs of infection. Be vigilant at keeping each wound clean and applying antiseptic. If you see any signs of spreading infection, it’s time to head to the doctor. You may be prescribed antibiotics if your wounds get infected.

Treat the pain. You can manage the pain and soreness of reef cuts with mild painkillers.

When can I go back in the water? Ideally, your wounds are completely healed before you go back in the water. However, this isn’t very realistic for many surfers who simply can’t let a good swell pass by. If you do go back in the water, make sure to treat and dress your wounds after every surf.

Wait… isn’t saltwater good for wounds? Sure, sterile saltwater is a disinfectant. However, the ocean is not pure saltwater. It’s filled with all types of bacteria, eggs, microorganisms, and debris. Even if the water looks crystal clear, you should clean your wound with freshwater and soap/another form of disinfectant.

What’s the worst wipeout you’ve ever had? 

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