Snorkel First Aid: How to Treat Coral Cuts

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If you make it a point not to disturb coral to the best of your ability, following the snorkeling etiquette rules, then you should avoid most injuries from coral.  However, every once in a while the surf or water have its own plan.  If you’re close to coral, checking out a fish or particular growth, then the surf can push you towards it.  If you push yourself away or brace yourself then you can get cut.  I have been in situations where the surf has actually pushed over the coral and my belly and legs were scraped.  Not good.

Coral cuts and scrapes are not run of the mill, though.  Certain care has to be given to them to make sure that they are not infected and that they heal well.

An Overviewsharp coral

Marine polyps secrete a hard calcareous exoskeleton that is coral.  These exoskeletons are often formed into sharp, rock-like pieces that are colorful.  There are many different types of corals and coral reefs will often have many different species within it.  These occur in tropical and subtropical waters and climates.  Because of the way coral is formed they can cause injury (coral cuts and abrasions) that may seem harmless at first but can soon develop blisters and infections to the wounded area and the rest of the body.  Precise care is always needed for coral cuts.

Symptoms of Coral Cuts and Abrasionsimages

  • Coral cuts can get itchy, red and inflamed.  If not treated properly then they can fester.
  • Redness may spread from the wound to the surrounding skin. This may be a spreading infection known as cellulits.
  • Cellulitis is an infection of the skin and the soft tissue surrounding the skin that results from bacteria from the hand coralcoral to invade the area.
  • Red streaks that move up and down an extremity (finger, toe, hand, foot, arm, leg).  May from a blister or the wound may drain pus.

Treating a Coral Cut or Abrasion from Snorkeling

  • Clean vigorously (scrub as hard as the pain permits) and then flush with fresh water as soon as possible after the coral cut.
  • If it is stinging then you can rinse it with a from of acetic acid.  Most people turn to vinegar.  Or you can clean it with isopropyl alcohol.   This helps to reduce the effect of irritable toxins from the coral.
  • Flush with 1/2 fresh water and 1/2 hydrogen peroxide
  • Rinse daily and then apply an antibiotic such as bacatracin.
  • If it eases you, you may take oral antibiotics to prevent or fight an infection.  See a doctor for a prescription of anti-biotics.
  • If you don’t notice signs and symptoms of an infection than over-the-counter (OTC) steroid ointment will help with redness, itching and stinging.
  • Treat pain with acetaminophen (Tylenol) and swelling with ibuprofen (Motrin or Advil) a couple times per day.  You may also use naproxen, found in Aleve.

Note:  Patients that are alcoholics have a tendency to develop bacterial infections by Vibrio spp that can be very aggressive and dangerous (life-threatening) in a short time-span. Any redness of skin that progresses rapidly with blisters moving up an extremity (arms or legs) toward the body should be considered a medical emergency, and will require IV antibiotics.

When to Seek Medical Care, Call an Ambulance or 911

Severe, deep cuts or if infection is present and the wound is not healing.

If you plan on using antibiotics a doctor should always be consulted.

Rapid occurrence of redness, blistering, especially in an alcoholic.

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