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When is an animal bite an emergency?

A young child having their hand wrapped in a bandage.

Oct. 26, 2021—Every animal bite needs some level of attention. Some bites you can care for yourself at home. Others may warrant a trip to your doctor's office or even an emergency room. So how can you tell the difference between minor bites and those that are more serious?

The following tips from the American College of Emergency Physicians and other experts can help you decide.

Bites you can care for at home

Less serious bites—those that aren't deep or bleeding a lot—can often be treated at home following these four steps:

1. Clean the wound right away. Wash the area thoroughly with soap and a lot of water.

2. Apply an antibiotic cream to the wound. This may help prevent infection.

3. Cover the wound. Use a clean bandage.

4. Watch for signs of infection. If you suspect an infection, see a doctor right away. Signs can include:

  • Fever.
  • Pus draining from the wound.
  • Skin redness or warmth.
  • Worsening pain.

Bites that are more serious

For some animal bites, getting medical help right away can help prevent serious complications, like infections. And some wounds (such as those on the face) may need stitches to prevent scars.

You may need to see your doctor or go to an emergency room if:

  • The bite has caused a deep, large or badly torn wound.
  • The wound is still bleeding, even after you apply pressure for 15 minutes.
  • The bite is on the hand or foot, which could raise the risk for bone or joint infections.
  • You have an underlying health condition that makes you prone to infections or you take medications that weaken the immune system.
  • It's been more than five years since your last tetanus shot.
  • The bite was from a wild animal, such as a raccoon, skunk, fox, coyote or bat. These animals can carry rabies.
  • The bite was from an animal that was acting strangely, like running in circles, drooling, or acting sick or unusually aggressive. Those can also be signs of rabies.

If you're not sure what to do or where to get care, it's a good idea to call your doctor for advice.

Prevention is good medicine

Dogs are responsible for most animal bites. And kids are the most likely to be bitten. It's not always possible to avoid a bite, but there are ways to lower the risk. These tips may help.

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