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Wound Care on Expeditions

Wounds are a common occurrence on expedition, and being able to manage a wide range of presentations is an important skill for an expedition medic to possess. In some climates, particularly tropical environments, wound healing can be delayed and there is an increased risk of skin breakdown and infection. It is therefore vital to know how to mitigate for this with items in your medical kit- however there are so many different dressings that it can often be hard to know which ones are most suitable for different wounds.

In this short blog I will try and explain some of the basic principles behind basic wound care. I will not try and re-invent the wheel, and some of the time I will signpost to other resources along the way.

To start with it helps to consider what an "Ideal" dressing should be able to do and this table from the ABC of Wound Care, published by the BMJ in 2006 highlights these important points:

Next it is important to appreciate what to look for when assessing a wound. NHS Fife have created a super handy guide which also helps to identify which dressing to use. Essentially it comes down to how much exudate is present- i.e. how wet or dry the wound is.

Most of the time, an astute expedition medic should identify and appropriately manage a wound early on, aiming to be pro-active rather than reactive.

The majority of wounds should not become necrotic. Whilst necrosis may occur with specific types of wounds such as snake bites or frostbite, apart form highlighting that such cases will usually need evacuation for specialist care, this blog will not go into detail regarding the management of these conditions.

Similar to NHS Fife, West Suffolk CCG have created a useful graphic to highlight the different types of dressings to use depending on a wound's appearance.

It is also important to remember that "primary dressings" cover a wound directly, whilst "secondary dressings" are used to hold a primary dressing in place. Bandages can then be used on top of the secondary dressings to protect the area if necessary.

Film dressings

Transparent adhesive film dressings are made of semipermeable membranes that are waterproof yet permeable to oxygen and water vapour. They maintain a moist wound environment and help prevent bacterial contamination. They are best for superficial wounds or wounds with light exudate. They can also be used to cover primary dressings that are not waterproof on their own.

Simple island dressings

Simple island dressings are usually used over wounds closed by primary intention, i.e. over a suture line or steristrips. These dressings have a central pad of cellulose material to absorb any oozing from the suture line during the first 24 hours post-surgery.

Non-adherent dressings

These dressings are designed not to stick to the drying secretions of the wound, thereby resulting in less pain and trauma on removal. This is important as on removal an adherent dressing can tear away any new granulation tissue within the wound bed.

Moist dressings

Moist dressings function by either preventing the skin surrounding the wound from losing moisture, or actively donating moisture to the area. Moist dressings can be divided into two groups: Hydrogel dressings and Hydrocolloid dressings.

Absorbent dressings

As the name suggests, these dressings are designed to absorb moisture and prevent maceration in wounds where there is lots of exudate present. Depending on their design, these may be used as either primary or secondary dressings.

The above definitions are taken or adapted from the following resources which are well worth reading in their entirety:

I hope this has been a useful collation of some good resources and helped you learn a bit more about wound management. Whilst writing this blog, I have come to appreciate the complexities of this topic, but I think there are some basic principles that it are always worth remembering:

  1. How is the wound going to heal- primary or secondary intention?

  2. How might this affect the type of dressing you will use?

  3. What is the risk of the dressing adhering to the wound base?

  4. How can you optimise the wound micro-environment?

  5. What is the risk of infection?

  6. What dressings do you have in your medical kit?

A tropical ulcer out on location in the South Pacific (photo taken with consent)


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