Straight, No Chaser: Human Bites
I have had weird experiences with humans biting humans, as have most physicians. There are several different types of human bites, which can range from harmless to surgically serious. However, as an emergency physician, knowing the dangers of the bacteria inhabiting your mouth, I tend to assume the worst until proven otherwise. Your first quick tip is to do the same.
Maybe it’s where I’m located, but I tend to see way more “fight bites” than anything else; these specifically refer to someone getting hit in the mouth. It’s always interesting to see the guy who “won” the fight being the one who has to come in for medical treatment. He cut his hand on someone’s tooth and really doesn’t think much of it. He just wants the laceration sewn. Little does he realize, the structures in the hand (tendons, blood vessels, muscles, and bones) are highly concentrated. He also doesn’t know that they are confined to a very limited space and seeding an infection in that tight space makes things really bad really quick. This guy is very dangerous because he tends to deny ever getting into the fight, ascribing the injury to something else (like punching a tree)—at least until I ask him why a tooth is inside his hand.
Then there’s the “Yes, he bit me” variety, where the teeth were the agressor that engaged the victim instead of the fist engaging the tooth. Think of the Tyson vs. Holyfield bite as an example. Sometimes parts get bitten off (fingers, nose, ears, and other unmentionables)! Children, as another example, sometimes bite and need to learn to stop that behavior. Biting is sometimes seen in sexual assault, physical abuse, self-mutilation, or with mentally handicapped individuals.
A third type is the ‘We love too much!’ variety of bites. These may include hickeys that actually break the skin. Other examples of “friendly” bites are folks biting off their hangnails, fingernails, and toenails and create skin infections. Yes, it happens more than you’d think.
The commonality to all of these scenarios is saliva that found its way through the skin. Because of the virulence of the bacteria contained within the saliva, an infection will be forthcoming. You’ll know soon enough when the redness, warmth, tenderness, fever, and possible pus from the wound develop.
The easy recommendation to make is anytime a wound involving someone’s mouth breaks your skin, get evaluated. Some wounds are much more dangerous than others. Teeth get dislodged into wounds, hand tendons get cut, bones get broken, and serious infections develop. In fact, these bites require immunization for tetanus. Bottom line: There’s no reason not to get evaluated if you develop those signs of infection, if any injury to your hand occurs, or if any breakage of your skin has occurred. You’ll need antibiotics and wound cleaning in all probability, with a tetanus shot if you’re not up to date. If you’re unlucky, you may end up in the operating room.
So here’s your duty if you haven’t successfully avoided the bite:
1) At home, only clean the open wound by running water over the area. Avoid the home remedies like peroxide, alcohol, and anything else that burns. Those agents make things worse by damaging the skin more than they “clean” the area.
2) Apply ice—never directly to the wound—but in a towel. Use for 15 minutes on and then 15 minutes off.
3) Retrieve any displaced skin tissue, place it in a bag of cold water, place that bag on ice, and bring it with you. We’ll decide if it’s salvageable.
4) Get in to be evaluated. Be forthcoming about whether or not it was a bite.
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