Surf’s Up: Coping with Reef Wounds

surfs-upCoral reefs are beautiful, there is no doubt about it! Those beautiful corals draw snorkelers and scuba divers from all over the world for a peek at underwater paradise. While the reefs are pretty to look at, nobody should be touching them. The coral plants themselves are very brittle and easily damaged, and they contain spores and toxins that are harmful to humans. Even a minor scrape against the coral can result in life-threatening injury. While all the warnings are about worst-case scenarios and many times it will just feel like a bad rug-burn for a few days, reef wounds should be taken seriously. A little bit of immediate care can do wonders for the long-term well-being of the injury and help to reduce scarring in the future.

What Really Happens with a Reef Wound
A reef wound can be as minor as a scrape against a piece of coral or as extreme as a deep cut with pieces of coral broken off inside the body. Most of the time, there is some debris in the wound with at least microscopic pieces of coral lodged in the flesh. None of the coral is sanitary, so of course having foreign entities even at microscopic sizes lodged in the flesh will be painful and will likely cause infection. Some coral is very toxic: in addition to causing infection from lack of sanitation, it may react like a sting and cause severe pain.

How to Treat a Reef Wound Right Away
The first thing to do is to clean the area really well. First scrub the wound with soap and water, and then flush the area with fresh water. To reduce the sting from toxins, flush the area with vinegar to get the pH back to a manageable level and help to neutralize the toxins. Some divers use a sterile syringe to wash the area, pressure washing out debris and helping to get all of the foreign matter out of the way. A betadine solution is good for the initial cleaning of the wound, if one is available. Of course, if the wound is deep or you can’t get everything out of it yourself, you should see a physician right away.

Follow-Up Care for Reef Wounds and Coral Cuts
After the initial cleaning, continuing to rinse the wound and applying an antibiotic salve or ointment is the best way to promote healing. Taking over-the-counter pain medications may be necessary to relieve the pain and tenderness from a reef wound. To prevent infection, oral antibiotics are important. If there are signs of infection, like swelling, excessive redness, blistering or weeping of the wound, one should seek medical attention. Alcoholics are more susceptible to aggressive bacterial infections from reef wounds, so should watch the wound very carefully. If the scar from the healing wound has a different color pigment than surrounding skin, seek help from a dermatologist.