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How (and When) to Cauterize a Wound

This process is so tough to endure, it catapults you beyond proper adulthood and straight into being a Rambo-like survival god.

by Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant
Jul 11 2013, 8:50pm

Being an adult is hard. And in our vast techno-digital landscape, there are millions of screaming voices, but too few voices to tell us what we need to know to be proper, respectable grown-ups. To help weed through the noise, Motherboard has partnered with the smart minds at the Stuff You Should Know blog to bring you a weekly column about real life.

This week on the guide to proper adulthood we'll be talking about a pretty gruesome topic—wound cauterization. That is, stopping a bleeding wound by burning it shut. This process is so tough to endure, it catapults you beyond proper adulthood and straight into being a Rambo-like survival god.

We should also say that cauterizing a wound is dangerous and should only be used as a last resort for survival. Never try this at home, because there you have a telephone to call an ambulance to do things right. Cauterization is not for the faint of heart and should only be attempted in a life or death scenario, kind of like the old ballpoint pen tracheotomy. Having said that, on to step one.

The first thing you should know about cauterizing a wound is when to perform this extraordinarily painful procedure. Like we said above, it's always a last resort, something you might need to do if you have no help, no phone, and no way to get to a hospital. The other factors relate to how bad you're bleeding and what kind of wound you have.

Generally we don't recommend cutting yourself just to test your cauterization skills

If your bleeding is severe, you could be at risk for something called exsanguination, which is bleeding to death. But here's something not everyone knows—you can die from losing as little as half your blood, depending on your age and state of health. In terms of cauterization, it becomes a viable option when you can't stop the bleeding any other way, like when using pressure or tourniquets. If you've cut a major blood vessel, this could very well be your situation.

Once you've determined that you're losing too much blood, it's time for the hard part. The first thing you need is a good fire. Once that's been going for a while, find a valid implement to do the dirty work. A knife blade or some other kind of metal is what you're looking for. Ideally, it will have a handle as well, because you're going to be holding it with your hands. Once you have your metal and you've cleaned it, put it in the fire coals and heat it to the point just before it begins to glow red. If you get carried away and it glows red or even white, pull it from the fire and let it cool back down some.

Next, get a stick or something else to bite down on because you're going to need it. If you have alcohol, pour it on the wound to clean it as best you can, but make sure it dries before your move forward. The last thing you need is to also light your wound on fire.

Now comes the moment you've been dreading, but it's a move that could save your life. Gently press the hot metal onto the wound, holding it long enough to seal it, but not so long that you're burning into your healthy body tissue. Try applying it in short bursts so you don't overdo it, checking the bleeding as you go. When you don't see any blood flowing, it means you've done a bang up job.

Infection is a real danger with cauterization, so make sure you clean the wound afterward as best as you can. If you have any alcohol at all, bite that stick again and douse the closed wound. Then take a long pull from the bottle yourself—you earned it!

Puncture wounds will seal up quickly and easily. Long gashes and cuts will be a little trickier and you may have to work on the wound in sections, reheating your metal in between. If this is the case, start with the part that seems to be bleeding the most and work your way out from there.

Stuff You Should Know is the brainchild of Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant. Along with the original podcast, the pair has now expanded into a TV show and blog, all packed with—what else?—stuff you need to know.

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