Kissing the reef.
Lets be honest. Coral cuts can be really cool, but only when the pains gone and the cut’s heeled up. A badge of honor.
Reef cuts have the potential to ruin your trip, and if they’re not dealt with properly, can kill you. Not so cool.
Reefs include coral, all types of rocks and sand bags. This article is going to discuss the issues around coral cuts.
Basic knowledge and understanding of how to deal with cuts and wounds is important for the traveling surfer. Its worth reading our article on Wound Management first to understand the basic principles.
When I first started taking on reefs, a good mate of mine at the time used to constantly remind me ‘remember, if you mess up, its YOUR fault’! He was referring to the predictability of a set breaking over a reef compared to a sandbank. He had a point, but we all make mistakes right? I seem to make a habit of it.
Bouncing on the reef presents a number of hazards. head injuries, spinal injuries, broken bones, getting stuck underwater, not to mention reef cuts.
Know at what tide a reef breaks dry. Try and work out the different sections of the wave from watching people who know it surf it. Have a clear plan on how you’re getting in and out. Pushing yourself to improve provides massive rewards, but be aware of your limits.
There are things you can do when you’re getting worked that can help reduce your chances of kissing the reef.
I found this video really useful:
WHY THE FUSS?
Corals are dirty. They have bacteria and spores on their surface, and because they’re so brittle they can slice through your flesh and break off leaving small chunks inside the wound.
Some corals contain toxins which add to the pain, and increase the chances of your whole body reacting to the injury, not just the damaged tissue. Septicaemia can be a serious complication of infected reef cuts.
Bits of coral and spores act as a source of infection and prevent the cut/wound from healing.
I got back from a trip a few years ago feeling really lethargic with a small reef cut on my shin that wasn’t healing. I thought it wasn’t going away because I kept getting it wet. It was only after a proper clean and antibiotics that I realized how much the cut had been affecting my general health. And that was just a scratch.
Coral cuts have the capability of spreading infection around your skin, and then onto your whole bidy making your really ill. Death from septicaemia (poisons from bacteria in your blood) is not unheard off from coral cuts.
CLEANING THE CUT
This is often the bit that is done worst, but is in the case of coral cuts it is the most important.
Take your time to carefully clean the wound. This is your best opportunity to make sure the cut behaves itself in the future.
- Remove ALL the foreign bodies in the wound including any small chunks of flesh that you don’t think have a blood supply. Don’t get carried away removing flesh, if you think there’s more than a few small pieces it should be done by a surgeon! Having a pair of sterile (use boiling water) tweezers or a few new green needles are useful for this.
- Wash the area really well. Drinking water is really useful. Sea water isn’t useful (contains small organisms & eggs) but is just about better than nothing. I really like putting betadine solution in with the water.
- If the wound is stinging a lot consider pouring vinegar over the wound.
- Using a clean syringe to blast the area with clean water can be useful to help dislodge debris and assess the depth of the wound and any underlying damage.
- I use hydrogen peroxide on reef cuts once I’ve spent ages cleaning them. Manufacturers advice that you dilute neat hydrogen peroxide before you apply to flesh. I now use 50% clean water & 50% hydrogen peroxide on wounds as neat solutions can delay your healing time. It really hurts, but the acidic solution reacts with your alkaline flesh and causes a bubbling reaction. This acts to help work the microscopic spores out of your flesh and kills bacteria. Don’t use this as a substitution for thorough wound investigation and cleaning beforehand.
- Antibiotic powder is recommended by some at this point to help prevent infection. If you have it then apply it evenly 3-4 times a day for a few days
- If you think there is damage to any nerves, arteries or tendons or the wound contains things that aren’t foreign bodies that you don’t recognize (like bone splinters) DON’T CLOSE THE WOUND. You need to get to a hospital to have the wound dealt with properly.
- Dress the wound with sterile cloth and bandage. Don’t use sticky materials on the wound. Change dressings if necessary.
- Steri-strips are really useful for reef cuts. I avoid closing the wound with sutures if I’m concerned about the wound as they can close in any bits of coral you’ve missed.
- Read our article on antibiotics. If its not improving consider taking antibiotics. Only take them if you know you’re safe to do so.
- Don’t use lime juice or products you’re not familiar with.
- Try and keep the wound elevated.
HOW DO I KNOW IF THE CORAL CUT IS BEATING ME?
- It won’t be healing
- It will be red, tense, weeping pus (or pus visible beneath skin)
- It will hurt!
Signs that it’s affecting your whole body are:
- You may feel knackered all the time
- You may be getting fevers
- You may be getting night sweats
- You may be feeling sick with a reduced appetite
- There may be a red warm area spreading over your skin starting from the wound area.
Get to a doctor urgently if any of the above is happening.
OTHER THINGS TO WATCH FOR
- If you hit the reef hard the pain may distract you from sprains and joint damage. Be suspicious of pain in the joints either side of the injury.
- Remember its possible to damage nerves and arteries beneath wounds.
- If the coral cut is deep and potentially entering a joint space you should go to a hospital for surgical cleaning.
- A bleeding wound may distract you from thinking about other issues around head injuries.
WHEN CAN I GET BACK IN THE SURF?
For the best chances of not having any issues from the reef cut, then wait until it’s healed.
If however you want to ignore that advice and try to make the most out of your surf trip by taking your chances, try doing the following:
- Apply a waterproof plaster spray prior to going in (then cry like a baby!)
- Methodically clean the wound after every surf
- Use clean dressings after every cleaning session.
- Antibiotic powder 4X a day
- Watch for the danger signs mentioned above. In you and your mates..
- Admit defeat if it starts to get nasty.
Author: Dr Dave Baglow
Download this article here
There is no substitution for being examined and treated by a medical professional. The intention of the articles on this website is to inform anyone who reads it of medical issues encountered on surf trips.
This website is designed to provide general practical information not specific medical advice.
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