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Cuts

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

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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 fever of up to 100°F (37.8°C) may occur. Home treatment can help reduce the discomfort.

Pain relief

An ice or cold pack may help reduce swelling and bruising. Never apply ice directly to a wound or the skin. This could cause tissue damage.

Elevate the injured area on pillows while applying ice and 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
Last Revised June 6, 2012

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