You’re camping in a remote part of Alaska. The helicopter that brought you in won’t be back for days. You slip and hit a rock. Your front tooth cuts through your lip or cuts your tongue. What do you do? How do you treat a mouth cut or a tongue cut when no medical help is around?
Actually, a mouth cut is one of the easier cuts to treat. Granted, it’s painful and tends to get infected. But we don’t stitch the mouth, inner lips, inner cheeks, tongue, or gums unless it’s big, gaping wound or it won’t stop bleeding.
Note: If the cut involves the outer lip or face, click here.
So you’ve got an inner lip cut, tongue cut, whatever mouth cut you choose, and there’s no help around. Here’s what to do:
1. Clean the cut.
- Pick out any obvious debris.
- Irrigate the cut with water. Swish the water in your mouth, or squirt it into the cut.
2. Stop the cut from bleeding.
- Stuff a clean cloth between the cut and your gum or teeth. (No cloth? Squeeze, pinch, apply pressure of some sort. Ten minutes should do it.)
- Ice the cut for five to ten minutes, if possible. You can use the ice as part of the compression inside the mouth or wrap cloth around the ice and use it on the outside.
3. Start an antibiotic, if available.
- You can expect any mouth cut to get swollen, painful, and infected. The mouth is full of bacteria. There’s no way to keep the wound sterile.
4. Eat soft food, don’t chew on that side, avoid salty foods (they make the cut sting).
And that’s all you can do. That’s all medical personnel do unless the cut is gaping badly or won’t stop bleeding. Then we’ll put in stitches, but only then. The reason is twofold:
- Sutures are foreign material that bacteria can attach to, so the infection may be worse.
- Infected wounds need to be able to drain if bacteria and pus build up. Otherwise you may get an abscess (trapped bacteria and pus).
Even if you partially tear the tongue frenulum (that little piece of skin that attaches your under-tongue to your lower mouth) or the lip frenulum (connecting the upper lip to the gum), don’t worry. Just follow these instructions, and it’ll grow back together unless it’s a really bad cut.
If the outside lip or face is cut, clean that, and tape it like you would any other cut. (But keep the inner mouth/tongue wounds open.)
If the outside colored part of the lip is cut, that’s more of a problem. You want it to grow back straight, so a doctor should see that ASAP. If that’s not possible, tape it back as straight as you can, keeping the colored edge as even as you can.