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You’re in the woods, day three of a seven day trip.
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Things are going well, the sights are beautiful, and you even hunted your own deer for dinner last night.
But on the way back to camp you tripped and a rock caught your shin.
It was just a small cut, nothing to worry about. Just rub some dirt in it, right?
But you woke up today with a fever and green pus oozing out of that scratch.
Is it infected? Do you know what to do with an infected cut?
Risks of Infection
When bacteria infests your wound, typically carried there by dirt, wood, or even your finger, bad stuff starts happening.
You wound stops healing. Eventually, your flesh will start dying. If allowed to infect you long enough, bacteria can cause amputation to be required.
That is, if you’re lucky.
If not, then worse symptoms occur. Sepsis might happen. The bacteria can find their way into your bloodstream and make their way to your heart.
It is never a good idea to leave an infection untreated.
But how can you tell if your wound is just red or if bacteria have taken hold?
How to Tell if Your Wound is Infected
While the bacteria in your cut may be too small to see, you can still look out signs your wound is infected.
Any wound will have some inflammation as part of the healing process, but excessive inflammation is a sign of infection.
Redness, swelling, and heat are all signs of inflammation. You’ll notice all of them immediately after the wound but they should decline in a day or two.
If they don’t, or they get worse, your body may be trying to fight off an infection.
If the redness streaks from the wound toward your heart then you’re in serious trouble. That is an infection that needs immediate attention.
Another sign is the liquid drainage from the wound.
A cut that is healing in a healthy manner can still produce drainage, but it will be clear or light yellow.
A cut that is infected will produce liquid that is green or cloudy. It may smell bad, too.
Fever and malaise are signs of infection that affect your entire body.
Recovering from a clean wound will leave you feeling better over time.
But an infected wound will result in an extended fever or continuous malaise.
If you don’t know what malaise is, that’s the lack of energy and overall “badness” you feel while sick.
Another really bad sign is black skin. That stuff is dead and you need to get to a doctor immediately.
Now that we know what an infection looks like, let’s go over how to heal an infected cut.
How to Clean an Infected Wound
Both cleaning and disinfecting a wound are often done at the same time. Washing out foreign materials also often washes out the bacteria.
But if you’re in the woods then treating an infected cut is a little bit more complicated. You want to be sure it’s both cleaned and disinfected.
Dirt and other stuff can harbor bacteria, so cleaning your wound of such bits is one of the most important steps you can take to get rid of an infection.
If you’re already infected, then you need to know how to clean an infected cut properly. Unless you want it to become re-infected.
First of all, make sure that what you will use to clean the cut is clean. Wash your hands very well (under the nails too!) and wear latex gloves if possible.
Rinse the wound using as clear and clean water as you can find. Soap, especially antibacterial soap, is a smart choice, but just water may have to make do.
Hydrogen peroxide or a saline solution can also be used to clean an infected cut. They will also disinfect at the same time.
You can make your own saline solution by boiling water (check out our guide here) and adding salt until no more will dissolve.
Hydrogen peroxide will clean and disinfect the wound but can also slow down the healing process, because it can damage the cells trying to heal.
Any pieces of wood or other large objects in your wound need to be removed. Sterilize your tool (preferably tweezers) using alcohol, boiling water, or fire, then remove the object.
Once the dirt and bacteria have been washed out, it is time to disinfect.
How to Disinfect a Wound
Some bacteria may continue to hide in your wound, even after a good wash. This is what disinfecting is for.
If you washed with a saline solution, hydrogen peroxide, or antibacterial soap, then your wound is most likely already disinfected.
However, if all you had was water (likely, in the wilderness), you need to disinfect the wound.
Iodine and alcohol are good liquid disinfectants. Don’t pour them directly into the wound, but pour them around the wound and let them wash through.
This is because they can damage the tissue and slow down healing.
Antibacterial creams can be applied directly to the wound to both disinfect and keep the wound moist. We’ll cover why that’s a good thing later.
Oh, it fell down a chasm. Let’s try to disinfect your cut using things not found in a first aid kit.
For alcohol, you don’t want something like beer. It has to be a strong alcohol. Ideally you would use rubbing alcohol but liquor can work in a pinch.
But if you didn’t happen to bring a fifth of whiskey into the woods there are some other options.
While bacteria love to consume sugar they cannot survive an environment filled with the sweet substance; it causes them to dehydrate to death.
So if you pack your wound with sugar it will kill any bacteria in there.
Salt will do the same thing but it will also activate every pain receptor in there.
If you need to save the life of your arch nemesis then rub salt in the wound, otherwise keep salt in mind for a last-resort method.
People all over the world have been using honey as an antibiotic cream for thousands of years.
Just don’t dilute it in water, because that will make it lose its antibacterial properties.
Lastly, if you have no other methods, you can use fire to cauterize the wound. It will not heal from this option, but if the choice is cauterization or death, fire can save your life.
How to Dress a Wound
Now that the wound is clean and disinfected, we need to dress the wound as that last step in treating an infected cut.
This will encourage healing and help prevent future infection.
You can just let the wound dry then form a scab.
For a long time that was the popular wisdom.
It does work. Scabs prevent reinfection so long as you don’t pick them off (listen to your mother!).
But wounds heal faster, and with less of a scar, if you keep the wound moist and clean.
Cells prefer to grow in a moist environment, see.
This is part of why antibiotic creams aid in wound healing. Honey does a great job, too.
You’ll also want a physical barrier to keep foreign debris out, such as a bandage or gauze.
They will also absorb any liquid from your wound.
If you do not have any purpose-made bandages then you can make your own.
Tear or cut cloth into strips. Use looser weaved cloth, such as clothing, over tighter weaved cloth such as canvas.
If you can, sterilize the cloth before you use it as a bandage. Boil it, soak it in strong alcohol, soak it in disinfectant, or smoke it for half an hour or so over a campfire.
Just be sure that you’re not putting a flaming cloth strip onto your wound.
Wrap the cloth strip around your wound, more than once preferably, then tie it on the other side.
It should be tight enough not to slip around but not tight enough to cut off circulation.
The bandage should be removed and a new one applied regularly. At least once a day, though if it is becoming soaked through you should replace the bandage until the soaking stops.
You can also make an herbal compress to take advantage of the healing properties of some plants.
Make a tea from the herbs, then soak the cloth in the tea.
After that, use it like a bandage.
You can also use the cloth to hold some of the plant directly on the wound, so long as the plant is clean and preferably boiled.
Yarrow is widespread in Asia, Europe, and North America, and has been used since antiquity to aid in wound healing.
Achilles is said to have used yarrow to make himself immune to the weapons of his enemies. Be sure to cover your heel!
Other herbs to use are calendula, chamomile, echinacea, and wormwood. They all also help prevent infection.
Just make sure you have an absolutely positive identification on the plant before you use it.
What to Take for Your Infection
Because infected wounds are on the outside of your body there’s not an awful lot you can take internally to prevent infection unless you have a pharmacy handy.
Antibiotics can be taken to reduce the chance of exterior infection. But they’re best used under doctor’s orders, and you don’t have a doctor with you, right?
Garlic also has antibacterial properties, whether taken internally or used externally.
Your breath will stink but it can help keep your cut clear! Plus cooking with it can make your food taste better.
You can also take Vitamin C supplements to help speed up your healing so you have less of a chance of being re-infected.
How Long Does it Take to Heal?
A tiny cut can take but a few days to heal. Larger ones can take over a week.
However, if it becomes infected, then that time can extend indefinitely.
So long as the wound remains infected it will not heal.
Once you have taken care of the infection then your wound will likely heal in a week or two.
If it has been two weeks and you haven’t healed yet, see your doctor.
An infected wound is no joke, even in a clinical setting.
Out in the wild an infection can be a death sentence.
Don’t let even a small cut get infected and end your trip–or life–prematurely.
Know how to heal an infected cut.