When to Get Medical Treatment for a Cut
Seven reasons to see a doctor, rush to the ER or dial 911
Ouch! You broke a glass and cut your hand. Or you stepped on broken glass and now your foot has a gushing gash. Can you treat it at home, or should you rush to the emergency room or urgent care?
That depends on how bad the cut is, what type of wound it is and how you got hurt, says James Williams, MD, clinical assistant professor at Texas Tech University and a spokesman for the American College of Emergency Physicians.
When home treatment won’t cut it
If you don’t get medical care for a cut that needs it, you risk infection and scarring, so it’s important to know these seven reasons for seeking treatment.
1. You can’t stop the bleeding. If you apply pressure to a cut for 10 minutes or so and the blood keeps flowing, see a doctor, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
2. The cut is long or deep. In general you should get treatment for a cut that’s more than an inch long, advises Williams. But if a shorter cut is deep — especially if you can see structures beneath the skin — you should seek medical attention, he adds. A deep cut can affect blood vessels, bones, ligaments, muscles and tendons, according to the NIH. A large wound also may require stitches.
3. You have a puncture wound. A deep puncture wound — such as an injury from a pneumatic nail gun (the kind used to install flooring) — can affect bone and increase the risk of infection, Williams says. If you get one, you’ll need an X-ray to see if the object reached the bone. In some cases, an orthopedic surgeon may have to operate to clean out the wound to prevent infection.
4. You have a cut on your face. Seeing a doctor for a facial injury offers the best chance for a good cosmetic outcome, especially for kids, Williams says. A cut on a part of the face that affects function, such as an eyelid or lip, should also be treated by a doctor.
5. There’s numbness or tingling. Any issue with function or feeling near a cut means you should get medical treatment. If you cut your hand and can’t feel your fingers, for example, head to the doctor’s office or emergency room.
6. You need a tetanus shot. If you get cut and haven’t had a tetanus shot in the past 10 years, see your doctor to get a booster.
7. There’s something stuck in the wound. If there’s metal, glass or other foreign object in a cut, don’t try to take it out yourself. See a doctor or go the emergency room to have it removed.
Don’t wait around
If you have a cut that meets any of these criteria, time is of the essence. Get care quickly. A wound that needs to be closed with sutures, staples or glue should be worked on within 24 hours, says Williams, and in some cases within 12 hours.
How you get medical help may depend on certain factors.
- If a cut is gushing blood and won’t stop, or if you’re having trouble moving or feeling sensation in a body part, call 911.
- If you have a long or deep cut or puncture wound, go to an emergency department, Williams says.
- If you have a minor cut, you can visit an urgent care center. However, it’s always a good idea to find out what type of caregiver will be there — whether you’ll see, for example, a nurse practitioner, a family doctor or an emergency physician.
In general, says Williams, “Use your best judgment.”
Related: How to Treat a Burn