How to Know if a Cut or Wound Needs Stitches

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Properly sealing the wound helps to prevent infection.
Properly sealing the wound helps to prevent infection. (Image: Jupiterimages/Creatas/Getty Images)

Except for the most squeamish among us, a trickle of blood is no big deal. A gaping wound that won't stop bleeding, though, is a horrifying sight for most people. Some cuts that look dramatic at first need little more than a bandage, while some that don't look so bad do need stitches. After an injury happens, stop and take a deep breath before assessing the situation.

Injuries That Require Stitches

You can automatically tell that some types of wounds require stitches. A cut to the face doesn't necessarily need stitches, but getting it closed by a plastic surgeon or other doctor can reduce the chance of scarring. Deep cuts or wounds on the neck should be stitched, according to the Nemours Foundation, and the University of Rochester Medical Center advises that a cut that is longer than 1/2 inch might also need stitches. A deep cut that occurs over a joint like the knee or elbow might also need to be stitched, since a bandage won't be able to keep it closed.

Determining the Need for Stitches

If you're dealing with a cut that is deep or long enough to bleed quite a bit, try to stop the bleeding on your own. Press cloth or gauze against the wound. The Telluride Medical Center recommends you keep constant pressure on the wound while you position the injury site higher than your heart. For instance, if you cut your leg, lie down and elevate your leg on a pillow or stool. Check the wound after 10 minutes of constant pressure. If the bleeding has stopped, you probably only need a bandage.

Other Considerations

Even a short cut may require stitches if you can see any interior body structures. If you see anything yellow, it could be a layer of fat, according to the Telluride Medical Center; dark red flesh could be muscle and anything white could be tendon or bone. Basically, if you see anything deeper than the the top few layers of skin, you'll need stitches. You may be able to tell that you've cut the skin this deeply right after the injury, or you may need to slow the flow of blood with the pressure from gauze first, depending on the severity of the injury.

Caring for a Cut

A cut that doesn't require stitches still needs to be cleaned. After the blood has stopped flowing, wash the wound with soap and water. Apply a topical antibiotic and cover the wound with a large, antibiotic bandage. Keep the wound dry and elevated if possible. Even if the wound is shallow, you'll need to visit the doctor if any debris, like glass, sand or gravel, is stuck in the skin and doesn't wash away with soap or water, since these objects could lead to infection. If the cut was caused by rusty metal or an animal bite, call your doctor's office; according to the Nemours Foundation, getting a tetanus shot within 48 hours after getting this type of wound can reduce the risk of infection.

Tips & Warnings

  • If the edges of a wound are pulling apart, but the wound is under one-inch long, steri-strips and butterfly bandages tend to work well to pull the edges of the wound together.
  • Always monitor for infection when a wound is healing. Signs of an infection include discharge, odor, redness, increased swelling and the edges of a sutured wound will also tend to pull apart when an infection is present.
  • If you suspect that a wound is infected, a visit to the doctor's office or hospital will be necessary. Oral antibiotics are often necessary to heal an infected flesh wound.

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