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Gunshot wounds - aftercare

A gunshot wound is caused when a bullet or other projectile is shot into or through the body. Gunshot wounds can cause serious injury, including:

  • Severe bleeding
  • Damage to tissues and organs
  • Broken bones
  • Wound infections
  • Paralysis

The amount of damage depends on the location of the injury and the speed and type of bullet. Gunshot wounds to the head or body are likely to cause more damage.

Wound care

Depending on the severity of your wound, you may have had surgery to:

  • Find and remove bullet pieces
  • Find and remove pieces of broken or shattered bone
  • To clean the wound

Gunshots wounds that pass through the body without hitting major organs, blood vessels, or bone tend to cause less damage.

You may have bullet pieces that remain in your body. Often these can't be removed without causing more damage. Scar tissue will form around these remaining pieces and they shouldn't cause lasting symptoms.

You may have an open wound or a closed wound, depending on your injury. Your doctor will tell you how to change your dressing and care for your wound. Keep these tips in mind:

  • Keep the dressing and area around it clean and dry.
  • Take any antibiotics or pain relievers as directed. Gunshot wounds are at risk for infection because material and debris can get pulled into the wound with the bullet.
  • If possible, try to elevate the wound so it's above your heart. This helps reduce swelling. You may need to do this while sitting or lying down. You can use pillows to prop up the area.
  • If your doctor says it's OK, you may use an ice pack on the bandage to help with swelling. Ask how often you should apply the ice. Be sure to keep the bandage dry.

Your doctor may change your dressing for you at first. Once you get the OK to change the dressing yourself:

  • Follow your doctor's instructions on how to clean and dry the wound.
  • Be sure you clean your hands after removing an old dressing and before cleaning the wound.
  • Clean your hands again after cleaning the wound and applying the new dressing.
  • Do not use skin cleansers, alcohol, peroxide, iodine, or soaps with antibacterial chemicals on the wound unless instructed to do so by your doctor. These can damage the wound tissue and slow your healing.
  • Do not put any lotion, cream, or herbal remedies on or around your wound without asking your doctor first.

If you have non-dissolvable stitches or staples, your doctor will remove them within 3 to 21 days. Do not pull at your stitches or try to remove them on your own.

Bathing or showering

Your doctor will let you know when it's OK to bathe after you come home. You may need to take sponge baths for several days until your wound has healed enough to shower. Keep in mind:

  • Showers are better than baths because the wound doesn't soak in the water. Soaking your wound could cause it to reopen.
  • Remove the dressing before bathing unless told otherwise. Some dressings are waterproof. Or your doctor may suggest covering the wound with a plastic bag to keep it dry.
  • If your provider gives the OK, gently rinse your wound with water as you bathe. Do not rub or scrub the wound.
  • Gently pat dry the area around your wound with a clean towel. Let the wound air dry.

After effects

Being shot by a gun is traumatic. You may feel shock, fear for your safety, depression, or anger as a result. These are completely normal feelings for someone who has been through a traumatic event. These feelings are not signs of weakness. You may notice other symptoms as well, such as:

  • Anxiety
  • Nightmares or trouble sleeping
  • Thinking about the event over and over
  • Irritability or being easily upset
  • Not having much energy
  • Feeling sad

You need to care for yourself and heal emotionally as well as physically. If you feel overwhelmed by these feelings, or they last more than 3 weeks, contact your doctor. There are treatments that can help you feel better.

When to call your doctor

Call your doctor if:

  • Pain gets worse or doesn't improve after taking pain relievers
  • You have bleeding that won't stop after 10 minutes with gentle, direct pressure
  • Your dressing comes loose before your doctor says it’s OK to remove it

You should also call your doctor if you notice signs of an infection, such as:

  • Increased drainage from the wound
  • Drainage becomes thick, tan, green, or yellow, or smells bad (pus)
  • Your temperature is above 100 °F for more than 4 hours
  • Red streaks appear that lead away from the wound

References

Bowyer GW, Rossiter ND. Management of gunshot wounds of the limbs. J Bone Joint Surg Br. 1997;79(6):1031-1036.

Burg A, Nachum G, Salai M, Haviv B, Heller S, Velkes S, Dudkiewicz I. Treating civilian gunshot wounds to the extremities in a level 1 trauma center: our experience and recommendations. Isr Med Assoc J. 2009;11(9):546-551.

Leong M, Phillips LG. Wound Healing. In: Townsend CM Jr, Beauchamp RD, Evers BM, Mattox KL, eds. Sabiston Textbook of Surgery. 19th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2012:chap 7.

Mauffrey C. Management Of Gunshot Wounds To The Limbs: A Review. The Internet Journal of Orthopedic Surgery. 2005;3(1).

Update Date: 6/1/2014

Updated by: Jacob L. Heller, MD, MHA, Emergency Medicine, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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