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Cuts and scrapes are a normal part of life. But sometimes, a deep cut can raise alarm. That’s why it’s essential to know how to tell if a cut needs stitches.
Should you race to the emergency room for a knife slip or treat it at home? When does a cut need stitches? If you’ve ever asked, “does my cut need stitches?” or wondered, “when is it too late to get stitches?” we have the answers for you.
Whether it’s a kitchen accident or a mishap while the kids are playing, knowing when a cut needs stitches will save you unnecessary stress and help you make informed decisions in case of an accident.
The best way to care for a cut at home is by preparing before it happens. Make sure you have your at-home first aid kit on hand. It’s important your first aid kit is fully stocked and replenished each time you use supplies.
To care for a cut at home, you may need:
Having these items on hand means being prepared when an accident occurs and potentially avoiding a hospital visit.
As soon as you or a loved one gets a cut, your first priority is to stop the bleeding. Wash your hands thoroughly, and put on your disposable gloves if available.
Remove any clothing that covers the wound. Don’t remove any embedded objects, as this could cause even more bleeding.
Cover the wound with sterile gauze and apply gentle, continuous pressure to the cut. At the same time, keep the cut elevated so that it is higher than your heart. This should slowly stop the bleeding.
Even if blood soaks through your sterile gauze, don’t remove the gauze. If you do, it could pull away a scab that is beginning to form, which will restart or worsen the bleeding. Instead, use more gauze on top and continue to apply pressure until the bleeding has stopped.
Once the bleeding has stopped, carefully remove the gauze. If you feel any resistance, you can use some warm water to remove the gauze safely without disturbing the new scab.
The next step is to clean the wound. Research shows that the best way to clean your injury is by rinsing it with lukewarm, potable water, making sure to wash away any debris in the wound. This means if you aren’t home, it’s always preferable to use bottled water over river or lake water. This is a more sanitary option.
Gently clean around the cut with soap and water to prevent infection. When you’re finished, spread antibiotic ointment on the wound and cover it with a bandage.
There are a few main reasons you might need stitches. Specifically, if your cut is too large or jagged to heal well on its own, or if it’s too deep to stop bleeding without stitches and medical attention. But let’s look at this more closely, so you’ll be prepared to make an informed decision in case of a cut.
If your wound is bigger than approximately ½ inch or deeper than ¼ inch, you should seek medical attention immediately, and you will need stitches. This size of cut is likely to bleed excessively and will need stitches to stop the bleeding.
However, that doesn’t mean that a small wound won’t need medical attention. A puncture wound, like the one caused by stepping on a nail or a dog bite, can cause a deep laceration that can lead to serious infection.
Some cuts are harder to heal because of their location. Cuts on your face, especially around your eyes, hands, or genital area, are vulnerable to infection, so they will need stitches.
Other cuts may need stitches because your body’s movement will keep them open. If your wound is over a joint, you will likely need stitches to hold the cut closed and allow it to heal. For example, if you have a cut on your knee, the movement from walking could prevent it from healing.
Your cut should stop or mostly stop bleeding after 10 to 15 minutes of elevation and pressure.
If it continues to bleed, it may mean that the cut has punctured an artery or vein. This means you will need stitches.
Get medical help right away if:
In all of these situations, you’ll need stitches and medical attention immediately.
Visually examine your cut as much as you can. If your cut is deep enough that you can see different kinds of tissues — including fat, muscle tissue, or bone — you will need to get stitches for it to heal properly.
It’s often difficult to see into a bleeding cut. However, if you see any distinct layers of tissue in your cut, it’s a sure sign that it is deep enough to need medical attention. If you can’t see, but there is a lot of blood, it’s a good idea to seek medical attention.
Cuts from clean blades (like kitchen knives) usually have straight edges, which heal well. They’re also less likely to get infected. These cuts may not require stitches.
Other sharp objects can leave a messier wound and make you more vulnerable to infection. You’ll likely need extra medical help, including stitches if your cut was caused by:
Additionally, you might need medication to prevent tetanus (if your cut was caused by a rusty implement) or rabies treatment (if the bite came from a wild animal).
Your wound care isn’t finished after you have gotten stitches. If you have dissolvable stitches, they may take a week or two to dissolve. If you do not have dissolvable stitches, your stitches may stay in for 3 to 14 days, depending on the cut’s size and location. You will need to return to the hospital or clinic to get these stitches taken out.
Watch your cut for signs of infection as it heals. You should see your doctor right away if you notice redness (especially red streaks) around your wound, pus draining from the injury, or if your wound feels warm to the touch.
If your stitches come undone before it’s time to remove them, you will need medical attention immediately.
It’s best to get stitches as soon as possible. Your body starts the healing process right away, and if you wait too long to get stitches, it will be more difficult to heal. Leaving a wound open too long also increases your risk of infection.
As a rule, try to get stitches within 6 to 8 hours of a cut. In some cases, you may be able to wait up to 12 to 24 hours. If you are unable to get stitches in this time frame, consult a medical professional on the best course of action for your wound.
We hope this guide will help you in case of a future injury. And if you or a loved one suffers a cut that needs stitches, we want to help you at CityHealth.
Our patient-centered approach means that you can count on our medical professionals to make your experience as comfortable as possible. Our two Bay Area locations are open seven days a week for your convenience. And you can book appointments online, call us at (510) 984-2489, or walk into one of our clinics.
For other medical concerns, we offer virtual visits where you can speak to a medical professional from your own home. And CityHealth is proud to offer COVID-19 testing at many locations around California.