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Cuts

Topic Overview

Causes of cuts

Cuts are open wounds through the skin. Normally the skin is under slight, constant tension as it covers the body. A cut is a forceful injury to the skin. Many people accidentally cut themselves with household or work items, yard tools, or when operating machinery. Children often are cut during play and sports activities, or from falls while riding wheeled toys, such as bikes, scooters, or skateboards. Most cuts are minor and home treatment is usually all that is needed.

Cuts can be caused by:

  • Blunt objects that tear or crush the skin (lacerations). These cuts are more common over bony areas, such as a finger, hand, knee, or foot, but they can occur anywhere on the body. Blunt object injuries usually cause more swelling and tissue damage and leave jagged edges, so problems with healing may occur.
  • Sharp-edged pointed objects pressing into and slicing the skin tissue (incised wounds). Sharp object injuries are more likely to cut deeper and damage underlying tissue.
  • Sharp-edged objects piercing the skin tissue (stab or puncture wounds).
  • A combination of blunt and sharp objects that tear, crush, and slice the skin tissue.

Types of cuts

Some types of cuts are more serious and need medical evaluation and treatment. These more serious cuts include:

  • Long or deep cuts.
  • Cuts that open with movement of the body area, such as a cut over a joint. A cut over a joint may take a long time to heal because of the movement of the wound edges.
  • Cuts that may scar and affect the appearance or function of a body area. A cut on an eyelid or lip which doesn't heal well may interfere with function or leave a noticeable scar.
  • Cuts that remove all of the layers of the skin (avulsion injuries), such as slicing off the tip of a finger. An avulsion injury may take a long time to heal.
  • Cuts from an animal or human bite. Infection is more likely with a bite injury.
  • Cuts that have damage to underlying tissues. Injuries to nerves, tendons, or joints are more common with cuts on the hands or feet. Slight swelling, bruising, and tenderness around a cut, bite, scrape, or puncture wound is normal. Swelling or bruising that begins within 30 minutes of the injury often means there is a large amount of bleeding or that damage to deeper tissues is present.
  • Cuts over a possible broken bone. Bacteria can get into a cut over a broken bone and infect the bone.
  • Cuts caused by a crushing injury. With this type of injury, the cut may have occurred when the skin split open from the force of the injury. The force of the injury may also damage underlying tissues and blood vessels. Crush injuries have a high risk of infection.
  • Cuts with a known or suspected object, such as glass or wood, in the wound.

Injury to the skin may also break small blood vessels under the skin and cause more swelling and bruising than you would expect.

What to do if you get a cut?

When you have a cut:

Cuts to the head or face may appear worse than they are and bleed a lot because of the good blood supply to this area. Controlling the bleeding will allow you to determine the seriousness of the injury.

Check your symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.

Check Your Symptoms

Do you have a cut?
Cuts are open wounds that slice or tear through the skin.
Yes
Cut
No
Cut
How old are you?
Less than 12 years
Less than 12 years
12 years or older
12 years or older
Are you male or female?
Male
Male
Female
Female
Do you have a puncture wound?
This is a wound caused by a sharp, pointed object going through the skin. Puncture wounds are deeper and narrower than cuts.
Yes
Puncture wound
No
Puncture wound
Is there a cut to the eyeball?
Yes
Cut to eyeball
No
Cut to eyeball
Is the wound more of a scrape than a cut?
Yes
Scrape, not cut
No
Scrape, not cut
Is the wound bleeding?
Yes
Bleeding wound
No
Bleeding wound
Would you describe the bleeding as severe, moderate, or mild?
Severe
Severe bleeding
Moderate
Moderate bleeding
Mild
Mild bleeding
Do you have a deep wound in your head, neck, chest, or belly?
A deep puncture wound in any of these areas could damage the internal organs.
Yes
Deep puncture wound to head, neck, chest, or belly
No
Deep puncture wound to head, neck, chest, or belly
Are you having trouble breathing (more than a stuffy nose)?
Yes
Difficulty breathing more than a stuffy nose
No
Difficulty breathing more than a stuffy nose
Is there any pain?
Yes
Pain
No
Pain
How bad is the pain on a scale of 0 to 10, if 0 is no pain and 10 is the worst pain you can imagine?
8 to 10: Severe pain
Severe pain
5 to 7: Moderate pain
Moderate pain
1 to 4: Mild pain
Mild pain
Has the pain lasted for more than 8 hours?
Yes
Pain for more than 8 hours
No
Pain for more than 8 hours
Is the pain getting worse?
Yes
Pain is getting worse
No
Pain is getting worse
Do you have a wound on your arm, leg, hand, or foot that is more than just a scratch?
Yes
Wound on extremity
No
Wound on extremity
For an arm or leg wound, is the skin below the wound (farther down the limb) blue, pale, or cold to the touch and different from the other arm or leg?
This may mean that a major blood vessel was damaged and that blood is not reaching the rest of the arm or leg.
Yes
Skin is blue, pale, or cold below an arm or leg injury
No
Skin is blue, pale, or cold below an arm or leg injury
Can you move the area below the injury normally, even though it may hurt?
Yes
Able to move limb normally below injury
No
Unable to move limb normally below injury
For an arm or leg wound, is there any numbness, tingling, or loss of feeling around the wound or below the wound (farther down the arm or leg)?
This may mean that a nerve was damaged.
Yes
Numbness, tingling, or loss of feeling around or below an arm or leg injury
No
Numbness, tingling, or loss of feeling around or below an arm or leg injury
Are there any symptoms of infection?
Yes
Symptoms of infection
No
Symptoms of infection
Do you think you may have a fever?
Yes
Possible fever
No
Possible fever
Are there red streaks leading away from the area or pus draining from it?
Yes
Red streaks or pus
No
Red streaks or pus
Do you have diabetes, a weakened immune system, peripheral arterial disease, or any surgical hardware in the area?
"Hardware" includes things like artificial joints, plates or screws, catheters, and medicine pumps.
Yes
Diabetes, immune problems, peripheral arterial disease, or surgical hardware in affected area
No
Diabetes, immune problems, peripheral arterial disease, or surgical hardware in affected area
Is the wound deep enough that you can see the bone, muscle, or tendon?
Muscle looks dark and thick, and tendon and bone looks white and shiny.
Yes
Muscle, tendon, or bone is visible
No
Muscle, tendon, or bone is visible
Were you able to clean the wound well?
You may not be able to clean the wound if it is deep, hurts too much, or has an object stuck in it.
Yes
Able to adequately clean wound
No
Unable to adequately clean wound
Is there an object stuck in the wound, and you can't get it out?
You may not be able to remove it because of where or how deep the wound is or because it causes severe pain.
Yes
Object in wound
No
Object in wound
Is the object large or small?
Large means things like a nail or piece of wood that is at least 2 in. (5.1 cm) long and anything bigger than that. Small means things like a pencil tip or a small splinter or sliver.
Large
Large embedded object
Small
Small embedded object
Is the cut or wound more than 0.25 in. (0.6 cm) deep and 0.75 in. (2.0 cm) long with sides that gape open?
Wounds like this often need stitches. If you need stitches, it's best to get them within 8 hours of the injury.
Yes
Cut more than 0.25 in. (0.6 cm) deep and 0.75 in. (2.0 cm) long with sides that gape open
No
Cut more than 0.25 in. (0.6 cm) deep and 0.75 in. (2.0 cm) long with sides that gape open
Is the wound on the face?
Yes
Wound on the face
No
Wound on the face
Are you worried about scarring?
Yes
Worried about scarring
No
Worried about scarring
Do you think you may need a tetanus shot?
Yes
May need tetanus shot
No
May need tetanus shot

To clean a wound well:

  • Wash your hands first.
  • Remove large pieces of dirt or debris from the wound with cleaned tweezers. Do not push the tweezers deeply into the wound.
  • Hold the wound under cool running water. If you have a sprayer in your sink, you can use it to help remove dirt and other debris from the wound.
  • Scrub gently with water, a mild soap, and a washcloth.
  • If some dirt or other debris is still in the wound, clean it again.
  • If the wound starts to bleed, put direct, steady pressure on it.

If a chemical has caused a wound or burn, follow the instructions on the chemical's container or call Poison Control (1-800-222-1222) to find out what to do. Most chemicals should be rinsed off with lots of water, but with some chemicals, water may make the burn worse.

Symptoms of infection may include:

  • Increased pain, swelling, warmth, or redness in or around the area.
  • Red streaks leading from the area.
  • Pus draining from the area.
  • A fever.

Try Home Treatment

You have answered all the questions. Based on your answers, you may be able to take care of this problem at home.

  • Try home treatment to relieve the symptoms.
  • Call your doctor if symptoms get worse or you have any concerns (for example, if symptoms are not getting better as you would expect). You may need care sooner.

Many things can affect how your body responds to a symptom and what kind of care you may need. These include:

  • Your age. Babies and older adults tend to get sicker quicker.
  • Your overall health. If you have a condition such as diabetes, HIV, cancer, or heart disease, you may need to pay closer attention to certain symptoms and seek care sooner.
  • Medicines you take. Certain medicines, herbal remedies, and supplements can cause symptoms or make them worse.
  • Recent health events, such as surgery or injury. These kinds of events can cause symptoms afterwards or make them more serious.
  • Your health habits and lifestyle, such as eating and exercise habits, smoking, alcohol or drug use, sexual history, and travel.
Puncture Wounds

Call 911 Now

Based on your answers, you need emergency care.

Call911or other emergency services now.

Put direct, steady pressure on the wound until help arrives. Keep the area raised if you can.

Call 911 Now

Based on your answers, you need emergency care.

Call911or other emergency services now.

Seek Care Today

Based on your answers, you may need care soon. The problem probably will not get better without medical care.

  • Call your doctor today to discuss the symptoms and arrange for care.
  • If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't have one, seek care today.
  • If it is evening, watch the symptoms and seek care in the morning.
  • If the symptoms get worse, seek care sooner.

Symptoms of difficulty breathing can range from mild to severe. For example:

  • You may feel a little out of breath but still be able to talk (mild difficulty breathing), or you may be so out of breath that you cannot talk at all (severe difficulty breathing).
  • It may be getting hard to breathe with activity (mild difficulty breathing), or you may have to work very hard to breathe even when you’re at rest (severe difficulty breathing).

With severe bleeding, any of these may be true:

  • Blood is pumping from the wound.
  • The bleeding does not stop or slow down with pressure.
  • Blood is quickly soaking through bandage after bandage.

With moderate bleeding, any of these may be true:

  • The bleeding slows or stops with pressure but starts again if you remove the pressure.
  • The blood may soak through a few bandages, but it is not fast or out of control.

With mild bleeding, any of these may be true:

  • The bleeding stops on its own or with pressure.
  • The bleeding stops or slows to an ooze or trickle after 15 minutes of pressure. It may ooze or trickle for up to 45 minutes.

Some types of facial wounds are more likely to leave a scar than others. These include:

  • Jagged wounds on the face.
  • Cuts on the eyelids.
  • Cuts to the lips, especially if they cut through the edge of the lip.

Stitches or other treatment may help prevent scarring. It's best to get treated within 8 hours of the injury.

Pain in children under 3 years

It can be hard to tell how much pain a baby or toddler is in.

  • Severe pain (8 to 10): The pain is so bad that the baby cannot sleep, cannot get comfortable, and cries constantly no matter what you do. The baby may kick, make fists, or grimace.
  • Moderate pain (5 to 7): The baby is very fussy, clings to you a lot, and may have trouble sleeping but responds when you try to comfort him or her.
  • Mild pain (1 to 4): The baby is a little fussy and clings to you a little but responds when you try to comfort him or her.

Pain in adults and older children

  • Severe pain (8 to 10): The pain is so bad that you can't stand it for more than a few hours, can't sleep, and can't do anything else except focus on the pain.
  • Moderate pain (5 to 7): The pain is bad enough to disrupt your normal activities and your sleep, but you can tolerate it for hours or days. Moderate can also mean pain that comes and goes even if it's severe when it's there.
  • Mild pain (1 to 4): You notice the pain, but it is not bad enough to disrupt your sleep or activities.

You may need a tetanus shot depending on how dirty the wound is and how long it has been since your last shot.

  • For a dirty wound that has things like dirt, saliva, or feces in it, you may need a shot if:
    • You haven't had a tetanus shot in the past 5 years.
    • You don't know when your last shot was.
  • For a clean wound, you may need a shot if:
    • You have not had a tetanus shot in the past 10 years.
    • You don't know when your last shot was.

Certain health conditions and medicines weaken the immune system's ability to fight off infection and illness. Some examples in adults are:

  • Diseases such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and HIV/AIDS.
  • Long-term alcohol and drug problems.
  • Steroid medicines, which may be used to treat a variety of conditions.
  • Chemotherapy and radiation therapy for cancer.
  • Other medicines used to treat autoimmune disease.
  • Medicines taken after organ transplant.
  • Not having a spleen.

Seek Care Now

Based on your answers, you may need care right away. The problem is likely to get worse without medical care.

  • Call your doctor now to discuss the symptoms and arrange for care.
  • If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't have one, seek care in the next hour.
  • You do not need to call an ambulance unless:
    • You cannot travel safely either by driving yourself or by having someone else drive you.
    • You are in an area where heavy traffic or other problems may slow you down.
Scrapes
Eye Injuries

Home Treatment

Minor cuts usually can be treated at home. If you do not have an increased chance of getting an infection, do not have other injuries, and do not need treatment by a doctor or a tetanus shot, you can clean and bandage a cut at home. Home treatment can help prevent infection and promote healing.

The American Red Cross recommends that everyone use blood and body fluid precautions with first aid treatment.

Treat bleeding

Stop the bleeding with direct pressure to the wound.

Nonprescription products are available to be applied to the skin to help stop mild bleeding of minor cuts, lacerations, or abrasions. Before you buy or use one, be sure to read the label carefully and follow the label's instructions when you apply the product.

After you have stopped the bleeding, check your symptoms to determine if and when you need to see your doctor.

Clean the wound

Clean the wound as soon as possible to reduce the chance of infection, scarring, and tattooing of the skin from dirt left in the wound.

  • Remove large pieces of dirt or other debris from the wound with cleaned tweezers. Do not push the tweezers deeply into the wound.
  • Wash the wound for 5 minutes with large amounts of cool water and soap (mild dishwashing soap, such as Ivory, works well). Some nonprescription products are available for wound cleaning that numb the area so that cleaning doesn't hurt as much. Be sure to read the product label for correct use.
  • Don't use rubbing alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, iodine, or Mercurochrome, which can harm the tissue and slow healing.

Stitches, staples, or skin adhesives (also called liquid stitches)

Determine if your wound needs to be closed by a doctor with stitches, staples, or skin adhesives.

Your doctor will tell you how to take care of your stitches or staples and when to return to have them removed. Skin adhesives usually do not need to be removed, but your doctor may wish to see you to check on the wound. Be sure to carefully follow your doctor's instructions. If you are unsure of how to care for your wound or have questions, call your doctor for instructions.

Consider applying a bandage

Most cuts heal well and may not need a bandage. You may need to protect the cut from dirt and irritation. Be sure to clean the cut thoroughly before bandaging it to reduce the risk of infection occurring under the bandage.

  • Select the bandage carefully. There are many products available. Liquid skin bandages and moisture-enhancing bandages are available with other first aid products. Before you buy or use one, be sure to read the label carefully, and follow the label's instructions when you apply the bandage.
  • If you use a cloth-like bandage, apply a clean bandage when it gets wet or soiled to further help prevent infection. If a bandage is stuck to a scab, soak it in warm water to soften the scab and make the bandage easier to remove. If available, use a nonstick dressing. There are many bandage products available. Be sure to read the product label for correct use.
  • Watch for signs of infection. If you have an infection under a bandage, a visit to your doctor may be needed.
  • An antibiotic ointment, such as polymyxin B sulfate (for example, Polysporin) or bacitracin, will keep the bandage from sticking to the wound. Apply the ointment lightly to the wound. Antibiotic ointments have not been shown to improve healing. Be sure to read the product label about skin sensitivity. If you have a skin rash or itching under the bandage, stop using the ointment. The rash may be caused by an allergic reaction to the ointment.
  • Use an adhesive strip to hold the edges of a wound together. Always put an adhesive strip across a wound to hold the edges together, not lengthwise. You can make a butterfly bandage at home or purchase one to help hold the skin edges together.

Tetanus

  • Determine whether you need a tetanus shot.
  • You may have a localized reaction to a tetanus shot. Symptoms include warmth, swelling, and redness at the injection site. A mild fever may occur. Home treatment can help reduce the discomfort.

Pain relief

Elevate the injured area on pillows anytime you are sitting or lying down. Try to keep the area at or above the level of your heart to reduce swelling.

Medicine you can buy without a prescription
Try a nonprescription medicine to help treat your fever or pain:

Talk to your child's doctor before switching back and forth between doses of acetaminophen and ibuprofen. When you switch between two medicines, there is a chance your child will get too much medicine.

Safety tips
Be sure to follow these safety tips when you use a nonprescription medicine:
  • Carefully read and follow all directions on the medicine bottle and box.
  • Do not take more than the recommended dose.
  • Do not take a medicine if you have had an allergic reaction to it in the past.
  • If you have been told to avoid a medicine, call your doctor before you take it.
  • If you are or could be pregnant, do not take any medicine other than acetaminophen unless your doctor has told you to.
  • Do not give aspirin to anyone younger than age 20 unless your doctor tells you to.

Symptoms to watch for during home treatment

Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home treatment:

  • Signs of infection
  • Signs of loss of function
  • Signs of decreased blood flow
  • Pain gets worse.
  • Symptoms become more severe or more frequent.

Prevention

To prevent cuts, it is important to practice safety when using blunt or sharp objects:

  • Pay close attention to what you are doing.
  • If you become distracted, set the project aside until you can pay attention to it.
  • Know how to use the object properly.
  • Have good lighting so you can see what you are doing.
  • Wear gloves whenever possible to protect your hands.
  • Wear other safety gear, such as glasses or boots, as appropriate.
  • Hold a sharp object away from your body while using it.
  • Carry the object with the dangerous end away from you.
  • Shut the power off and use safety locks on your power tools when you are not using them.
  • Store dangerous objects in secure places away from children.
  • Teach children about safety, and be a good role model.
  • Do not use alcohol or drugs when you are handling sharp objects.

Be sure to have a tetanus shot every 10 years.

Preparing For Your Appointment

To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.

Questions to prepare for your appointment

You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:

  • What are your main symptoms? How long have you had your symptoms?
  • How and when did the injury occur? Have you had any injuries in the past to the same area? Do you have any continuing problems because of the previous injury?
  • What object caused the injury? Was there or is there an object in the cut?
  • What home treatment measures have you tried? Did they help?
  • What nonprescription medicines have you tried? Did they help?
  • What prescription and nonprescription medicine do you take?
  • Was your injury caused by abuse?
  • Were drugs or alcohol involved in your injury?
  • When was your last tetanus shot?
  • Do you have any health risks?

Related Information

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer H. Michael O'Connor, MD - Emergency Medicine
Current as of June 4, 2014

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.

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