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Salty Water Better for Treating Wounds than Soapy Water

A boy has an infected wound cleaned in the dressings tent of a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) clinic set up at the camp for displaced people in the grounds of the United Nations Mission to South Sudan (UNMISS) base in Juba, South Sudan, on January 12, 2014.

Salty water may be better for cleaning certain wounds than soap and water, new research suggests.

Writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers from McMaster University in Canada say not only is saline water better at cleaning open fractures, but it’s considerably cheaper, which would be good news for developing countries where open fractures are more common.

"There has been a lot of controversy about the best way to clean the dirt and debris from serious wounds with bone breaks," said Mohit Bhandari, principal investigator and a professor of surgery for the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine at McMaster. "All wounds need to be cleaned out -- a process known as debridement -- but evidence shows that cleaning wounds with soap was not better than just water, which was unexpected."

For the study, the researchers looked at 2,400 people who had suffered open arm or leg fractures and had them cleaned with soapy water or a saline solution administered at three different water pressures.

They found that saline delivered at low pressure was more effective at preventing infection, thus reducing the need for further surgery.

According to the World Health Organization, 90 percent of traffic fatalities take place in low and middle income countries. The researchers said open fracture wounds likely occurred in a “similar proportion.”

"These findings may have important implications for the care of patients with open fractures worldwide since developing countries deal with a disproportionate number of cases,"said Edward Harvey, chief of Orthopaedic Trauma at the McGill University Health Center and a professor of surgery at McGill University. "Most of the time we were using soap and water with a high pressure delivery system to clean the wound, but now we don't, and that makes the best practice much cheaper."