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April 13, 2018 Last updated: March 24, 2020

How to Treat a Sucking Chest Wound

Everything about this potentially life-threatening injury is quite bad. A sucking chest wound occurs when the chest cavity is punctured by some foreign object. Bullets and bits of shrapnel are common culprits.

Your lungs consist of delicate sacs that fill with air when you inhale. Your chest cavity, including your ribs, protects your lungs and maintains an open space for them to expand into. When something pierces your chest cavity, outside air can flood in and cause your lung to collapse. A collapsed lung will leave you gasping, or sucking, for air as your lung tries to fight against the increased pressure coming in through the wound. That pressure only builds as you try to breathe harder.

Sucking chest wounds typically cause blood to foam or bubble near the wound site. Treating such a wound quickly is critical, so you should assume any severe wound to the chest is a sucking chest wound. Apply treatment immediately and get the injured person to medical attention as soon as possible. The key to treatment is to seal off the chest cavity to prevent outside air from putting pressure on the lungs while still allowing air to escape as the lungs inflate. To accomplish this, you want to create a valve that allows air to exit, but not enter, the chest cavity.

1: Find a flat, impermeable patch that’s approximately 3x larger than the wound. Credit cards, plastic wrap, even a cell phone can work.

2: Sterilize or clean the patch if possible to avoid introducing bacteria that can cause infection.

3: Tape the patch down over the wound on 3 sides, leaving one side open to allow air to escape.

4: Monitor the patch to make sure that air isn’t getting sucked in. Adjust if necessary.

5: Clear the valve area of blood if it blocks air escaping the lungs.

6: Remove the patch if the victim displays any of the following symptoms: severe shortness of breath, unequal chest size, bulging neck veins, or blue lips, neck, or fingers.

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Illustrated by Ted Slampyak

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