Road rash refers to scrapes, abrasions, or surface burns on the skin. There are many terms to describe these kinds of injuries to the surface layer of the skin.

People of all ages can get road rash. Researchers report that around 71% of reported injuries to children are abrasions.

Skinned knees are one form of road rash, but these injuries can also be quite serious — especially when they result from a vehicle accident, for example. Hospitalization and complex treatment may be necessary in such cases.

That said, in most instances, road rash usually improves with home care. Understanding more about the nature of this injury can help support healing, reduce pain, and prevent complications.

Keep reading to learn more about the causes, symptoms, and treatment options associated with road rash.

Man helps boy with road rash on knee.Share on Pinterest
Children often get road rash from a fall or minor accident.

The American College of Surgeons define abrasion as “when the skin is rubbed away.”

The root cause of abrasion, or road rash, is the skin coming into contact with a rough surface, or when the force applied to the skin is more powerful than the skin’s ability to stretch.

These kinds of injuries can result from an accident, such as falling off a bicycle or when a baseball player slides into home plate. The latter is also sometimes called turf burn.

Bony parts of the body that do not have much body fat or thick skin — such as the knees, elbows, or ankles — are more likely to get road rash than other areas.

Abrasion is the medical term for road rash. When people get these types of injuries, the skin breaks, small capillaries also break, and blood seeps out.

The symptoms of road rash will depend on how deep the injury is. Even with mild abrasions that do not go much deeper than the top layer of skin, or epidermis, there is usually pain and bleeding. In fact, road rash can be more painful than a puncture wound, as it affects more nerve endings.

Deeper abrasions, which can reach down into the dermis, may occur alongside other symptoms, including:

  • foreign bodies, such as dirt or glass, in the wound
  • bruising
  • damage to the tendons, nerves, or blood vessels
  • broken bones

“Traumatic tattoos” are perhaps the most extreme symptom of road rash. These can develop when particles get embedded in the skin and cause permanent scarring and discoloration due to an injury that causes abrasions.

Research into the most effective way to treat such injuries and prevent scarring is ongoing. Some studies suggest that involving burn experts in treatment can improve outcomes.

Proper home care can resolve most cases of road rash.

It is important to treat road rash as soon as possible after sustaining the injury. Cleaning out the wound is essential to prevent infection and remove any foreign bodies that may be in the wound. Doing so will help prevent a form of scarring known as tattooing.

It is vital to clean and dress the wound every day. To do so, a person can follow these steps:

  1. Thoroughly wash the hands with soap and water and dry them before treating road rash.
  2. Remove and dispose of old bandages.
  3. Wash the affected area with antibacterial soap and rinse well.
  4. Thoroughly dry the surrounding area.
  5. Apply a thin layer of an antibacterial ointment, such as Bacitracin, to any open wounds.
  6. Use moisturizing lotion on skin surrounding the injury and areas that may have healed.
  7. Cover the wound with non-stick gauze and secure as needed.
  8. Use over-the-counter pain relievers as necessary.

As road rash heals, the skin can feel itchy or as though it is being stretched. A person may wish to apply moisturizer frequently to keep the skin soft.

For healthcare professionals, two of the key steps in diagnosing road rash are performing a thorough physical examination and learning when the incident happened, how it took place, and what injured the skin.

Abrasions can be linear (such as when they are due to a scratch) or appear in groups (as a result of dragging the skin over an uneven surface). In some cases, the road rash wound can even take on the pattern of whatever it was that damaged the skin.

Road rash usually heals with a few days of home care, but some injuries may be deep enough to require medical attention.

Complications, such as infection, are possible with any kind of wound, including road rash.

A person should see a doctor if they notice any of the following:

  • fever
  • pus draining from the injury
  • discoloration and swelling around the injury getting worse
  • the area around the wound getting warmer
  • bad smells coming from the wound
  • red or dark streaks in the skin leading away from the wound
  • taking longer than 2 weeks to heal

Learn more about recognizing and treating an infected wound here.

If the person has diabetes or cardiovascular problems, or if they have not had a tetanus shot in over 10 years, it is important to seek medical help right after the injury that caused the road rash.

Learn more about diabetes and wound healing here.

Road rash, or abrasion, is a common type of injury.

Road rash injuries damage the outer layers of the skin and can be more painful than puncture wounds, even though they are not as deep.

Keeping the wound clean and preventing infection are the main objectives when it comes to treating these types of injury.

Without treatment and effective cleaning, foreign bodies — such as dirt or pebbles — can get trapped in the skin. This can cause a type of scarring called traumatic tattooing.