Apr 122012

You are helping your parent out of their wheelchair to the bed when you notice blood running down their arm. Your eyes automatically travel upwards to the source and you see a wound that looks as if someone peeled back the top layer of skin. A skin tear, probably the most common of skin injuries among the elderly due to changes that occur as we age. The skin becomes more fragile, less elastic, and thinning of the fat layer just below the surface, increase the risk for injury.

Skin Tears

Skin tears are a painful injury where the top layer of skin (the dermis), is torn from the layer just below the skin (epidermis), often leaving a skin flap. While they usually aren’t serious, they are painful and disfiguring. Dressing changes may be painful and if not done right, may cause further damage and pain. And as with any break in skin integrity, there is the risk of infection.

According to a study done by the Patient Safety Authority, 88% of all skin tears reported by healthcare facilities occurred in patients 65 years of age or older. “The Authority chose to highlight the skin tear issue because of the high number of patients who experience these painful wounds, especially among older and more fragile populations,” said Alan B.K. Rabinowitz, administrator of the Patient Safety Authority.

Risk factors include:

  • Advanced age
  • Poor nutritional status
  • Immobility
  • Dry skin
  • Mental impairment
  • Loss of vision, sensation, searing
  • Long-term use of steroids
  • Multiple medications and/or disease processes
  • gitation and restlessness


Most skin tears occur on the arms and legs so particular effort should be made to protect these areas.

  • Wear long-sleeve shirts and pants
  • Apply moisturizer twice a day
  • Drink plenty of fluids
  • Adequate nutrition
  • Wearing glasses and/or hearing aids as indicated

Caregivers Should:

  • Check equipment such as bed rails and wheelchairs for rough edges that could cause injury
  • Be especially careful when handling a person such as for personal care or transfers
  • Keep pathways clear of objects
  • Avoid wearing rings, watches or bracelets when providing care
  • Keep fingernails trimmed and smooth


  • Gently clean the area with normal saline or water (Never use peroxide on an open wound unless dirt is visible and doesn’t come off with water or saline).
  • Gently replace the skin flap. The flap may not cover the entire wound, but should be positioned to increase the chance for it to “take” in the wound bed.
  • If bleeding cover with gauze and apply light pressure
  • Apply a dressing

Choosing the type of dressing to apply involves several factors including skin fragility, amount of drainage, size and location of injury.

If you parent’s skin is relatively healthy, my favorite dressing is a clear, semi-permeable dressing that allows you to see the wound, air to get to the wound, and contains drainage. Tegaderm and Opsite are the two I have worked with the most.

They are a little tricky to handle at first because the plastic will stick to itself and you will never get it unstuck. Be very careful when peeling off the backing. Place it over the wound pressing it in place and then remove the top paper or the one around the edges, depending on the product you use. These can stay on 3-7 days unless drainage is leaking from them. Decreasing the number of dressing changes reduces the risk of reinjuring the wound and infection.

These types of dressings will not stick if there is lotion or oil on the surrounding skin, so you made need to gently wash around the wound with soap and water. Rinse well to avoid leaving soap on the wound. To protect the surrounding skin, I like to use a skin barrier such as Skin Prep. This is an impressive and underutilized tool in my opinion. It forms a protective barrier between the skin and the adhesive, so that when you remove the dressing the Skin Prep comes off instead of more skin. And yet, it actually helps the dressing to stick better.

I had a patient who was allergic to Tegaderm, but as long as we put Skin Prep on first, he could wear it up to a week with no problem. I use it under tape all the time. Skin Prep should be in the medicine cabinet of every caregiver’s home! (No, I am not a representative of the product).

Another dressing I use, especially if the drainage is heavy, is to place Vaseline gauze over the wound, cover with dry gauze, and wrap it with rolled gauze. There is also netting that you can slip over the extremity to hold the dressing in place but if the person is restless or moves a lot, it probably will not work.

Whatever type dressing you apply, remove it slowly and carefully. Peel it off in the direction the skin flap is growing to avoid peeling the skin flap back and causing further damage.

Always monitor skin tears for signs of infection, which can lead to cellulitis, a serious infection of the skin. That is a topic for another day.


  17 Responses to “Skin Tears in the Elderly”

  1. I have had patients come in with the skin on their hands be paper thin. They have to be careful even rolling over on the table. I always thought it was from blood pressure medication.

    Yours In Health!

    Dr. Wendy

  2. Hi Suzanne,

    Boy, those take me back to my pharmacy days … Tegaderm & Opsite wound dressings and Vaseline gauze. This is a very helpful article because even though I may be familiar with the dressings, I was not familiar with the actual application. Thank you for sharing your expertise.

    To a Life of Success, Neil
    Successful Life – Getting Clear

  3. Good advice … fortunately does not yet apply to me at 73.

    Live Long and Prosper

  4. good article – pressure reducing mattresses are also a piece of the puzzle in helping with prevention.

  5. For these cuts, tears, or other skin breakages, what do you think about sanitizers or applied antibiotics, like OTC Neosporin, or will saline generally do the job?

    Mark Hogan

    Kevin Hogan Makes Reading Body Language Easy!

    • I am not a big fan of antibiotic ointments as a general rule. If there is no sign of infection, why treat? There is also no real evidence that it helps wound healing Medscape. If you are going to use an antibiotic ointment, use Triple Antibiotic Ointment. It has been shown to be effective if there is actual bacterial contamination. PubMed.

      Generally, gently cleaning with saline is good enough.

  6. Very thorough and complete!

    Cherie Miranda
    Even the US Marine Corps Has Studied Meditation

  7. I had no idea that the skin could tear. Something to keep in mind when working with elderly people.
    Scott Sylvan Bell
    Body language of disgust
    Now go implement!

  8. Does using a moisturizing lotion daily help reduce skin tearing in older adults?

    Sabrina Peterson, NASM CPT, CES
    Fat Burning Home Workouts

  9. Another good article about something to watch for when caring for the elderly. I was not aware of skin tears. Thanks for the information.
    Sonya Lenzo

  10. Great, very specific and practical advice for skin tears, thanks!

    EcoFriendlyMatters @ EcoFriendlyLink
    Neem is an effective organic pesticide – but I wish I’d known this first!

  11. Very detailed information that offers great solutions and precautions. I have never thought about skin tears…nor have I encountered them. Thank you for bringing this to my awareness.

    Yours In Health!

    G.E. Moon II

  12. Hi Suzanne,
    You can tell from your post that you are a great nurse with a huge knowelegde!
    Thanks for the ideas shared here!

    Elimina la Ansiedad

  13. Suzanne,
    Applying Skin Prep is a great idea. Very punctual information about the skin problems with the elderly.
    Thank you

  14. So you mean skin tears … as you tear a piece of paper; not a “cut”.

    Interesting … and a very informative post.

    Thank you.


  15. Great tips! I always learn something new here!

    Getting To Yes

 Leave a Reply



You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>