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Prevent Bite Wounds

Each year, many parents rush their children to the pediatrician’s office or the emergency department after their youngsters have been bitten by animals or other humans. Consider the following statistics: there are about 4.5 million dog bites reported annually in the United States, along with 400,000 cat bites and 250,000 human bites. It is likely that the actual number of bites is much higher. While many of these bites cause only minor injuries, others are much more serious. In many cases, these bites produce infections. This occurs in more than 50% of cat bites and 15% to 20% of dog or human bites.

Many people don’t realize that most bites come from domesticated animals that the child knows, not from wild or unfamiliar animals. A major concern for parents about animal bites is the child’s risk of contracting rabies. Rabies is a very serious viral infection that affects the central nervous system and brain, causing a high fever, swallowing difficulties, convulsions, and eventually, death.

Fortunately, rabies in humans is rare today (most domesticated animals are vaccinated for rabies), but even so, the animal that bit your child may need to be confined and observed for 10 days for the presence of rabies. (Don’t attempt to capture the animal yourself. Contact animal control officials.) However, confinement is not always possible, especially when a wild animal is responsible for the bite. The greatest risk for rabies comes from wild animals such as bats, raccoons, foxes, skunks, and coyotes.

Even when rabies isn’t present, an infection can develop at the site of the bite. Contact your pediatrician if any of the following signs of an infection are present:

  • Pus or drainage from the bite wound
  • Swelling and tenderness in the area around the bite
  • Red streaks that extend from the bite
  • Swollen glands that occur above the bite

Prevention of Bites and Infections

To prevent bites and the infections associated with them, here are some tips to keep in mind.

  • Teach your child to avoid contact with wild animals. She also needs to stay away from dead animals, whose nervous system tissues and saliva may contain the rabies virus and who may be infested with fleas or ticks carrying various bacteria, viruses, and other infectious organisms.
  • Never leave a young child alone with an animal. Even playful interaction between the child and a pet can overexcite the animal and lead to an unexpected bite.
  • Don’t allow your child to tease a pet, play roughly with it (eg, pulling its tail), or grab its toys, bones, or food.
  • Educate your youngster never to kiss or place her face close to an animal, nor to awaken a pet from sleep or bother it while it’s eating. Teach your child how to behave when approached by an unfamiliar dog. She shouldn’t run from the dog or make any aggressive movements, but instead face the dog, allow the dog to sniff her, and then back away slowly.
  • Instruct older children to recognize the signs of a potentially unsafe dog, including a rigid body, a stiff tail at half-mast, a staring expression, hysterical barking, or a crouched position.
  • Cover and secure all garbage containers, which will keep raccoons and other wild animals from being attracted to your home and places where children play. How Animal Bites Are Treated Here are some guidelines on treating an animal bite to lower the risk of developing an infection.

How Animal Bites Are Treated

Here are some guidelines on treating an animal bite to lower the risk of developing an infection.

  • Apply firm pressure to the area of the bite using a clean bandage or towel until the flow of blood ceases. If you can’t stop the bleeding, contact your pediatrician.
  • Wash the wound gently but thoroughly with soap and water, dry it, and cover it with gauze.
  • Contact your pediatrician whenever any animal bite breaks the skin, even if the wound seems minor. Your pediatrician may decide to suture (stitch) the wound and perhaps prescribe antibiotics or treatment to prevent rabies or tetanus. Antibiotics are given most often for moderate to severe bites, puncture wounds, or bites to the face, hand, foot, or genital area. They are also used for children with a weakened immune system.

If the animal is unavailable to be observed and the risk of rabies is considered high, your doctor will give your child a specific type of immune globulin and begin a series of immunizations against the rabies virus, which will prevent the infection from occurring. The immune globulin is injected into the bite wound. It must be given as soon as possible to be most useful.

What should you do in the case of human bites, perhaps from a sibling or playmate? Contact your pediatrician and describe the wound. Your pediatrician will want to know whether the bite has broken the skin and if the injury is large enough to need stitches. If your doctor wants to examine the bite, wash it with soap and water before leaving for the office visit. For minor wounds that barely break the skin, a thorough washing and bandaging may be all that’s needed.

Last Updated
Immunizations & Infectious Diseases: An Informed Parent's Guide (Copyright © 2006 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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