It’s necessary to dress and bandage a wound in order to protect it from contamination during the healing process while keeping the right balance of moisture by absorbing excess drainage.

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Dressing and bandaging are two different but closely related concepts. A dressing goes directly against the wound to absorb excess fluids (called exudate) and prevent foreign debris from getting inside after you’ve already cleaned it. The purpose of bandaging is to protect and hold the dressing in place.

Some products, such as the standard Band-Aid, are a hybrid. The white gauze pad is the dressing and the tan adhesive strip is the bandage.

Dressing and bandaging is one step in the overall process:

Dress and bandage

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Simple combo bandages are great for simple injuries. But larger wounds and those in awkward or active body locations tend to need more specialized solutions where you mix multiple components together.

We dig into different types of off-the-shelf products and DIY methods below. But the basic tips of how to dress and bandage a wound apply to every scenario.

Because one of the most important parts of the healing process is to prevent more contamination, you should use a proper, sterilized (ideally sealed) dressing. Try not to touch or contaminate the parts that will touch the wound.

In an austere survival situation, anything clean can work in a pinch — for example, you can boil strips of a cut t-shirt or bedding for 20 minutes.

Tip: Run a new white cotton t-shirt through a high heat cycle in your dryer, then put it in a ziploc bag for future use as a dressing, bandage, or clean-up cloth.

Whatever dressing you use should be slightly larger than the wound itself to create a little overlap. It’s fine to use several dressings to cover a larger injury.

If the dressing is a basic dry material, such as standard gauze or a cloth, you should add a thin layer of white petroleum jelly directly to the materials. The petroleum jelly will help keep the wound moist and prevent the dressing from sticking to the wound or scab.

Petroleum jelly on plain gauze

However, studies have shown that adding an antibiotic cream — such as Neosporin or other products that contain Neomycin — doesn’t add any benefit beyond plain petroleum jelly. Worse still, the Neomycin runs the risk of causing an allergic reaction in some patients.

Even in an austere setting, don’t get creative or use homeopathic junk you heard about in a prepper forum. The only natural material that has enough medical evidence behind it is honey (although the official word is “this still needs more research”). Studies show that honey’s natural anti-bacterial, anti-oxidant, and anti-inflammatory qualities sometimes work well as a natural dressing.

Lay the dressing flat over the wound. If you can, use small medical tape around the edges to hold the dressing in that spot as you begin bandaging.

Dressing a pig’s foot

You have more flexibility in picking the bandaging material because it doesn’t directly contact the wound. A bandage can be rolled gauze, elastic, or even plastic saran/cling wrap. It’s helpful if the bandage is stored rolled so that you can easily wrap it around the patient.

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Plastic wrap bandaging

Making the bandage too tight delays healing because blood brings the body’s healing supplies to the wound. Make it just tight enough to keep the dressing protected.

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