How to know if a cut requires stitches

If you’ve ever wondered how to know if you need stitches, imagine this scenario. You’re putting away leftovers from dinner when your young son shuffles into the room, wailing. You hurry over to him and notice blood dripping from his arm. As you move his shaking hands away from the blood, you see a large gash. “I cut myself climbing the fence,” he whimpers.

Immediately you ask yourself this question: Does it require stitches, or a quick antibiotic and bandage?

If you have been in a similar situation — whether it’s dealing with a wound from falling on something sharp, bit by a dog, or sliced by a cooking utensil — it’s important to know if a cut requires stitches. If a deep cut does not get the proper treatment, it can become infected or not heal properly.

What to look for in a cut requiring stitches

Also called a laceration, a cut is different from an abrasion (surface wound) and avulsion (when a chunk of skin is torn away).

Skin lacerations can occur anywhere on the body and at any length and depth. Some skin cuts don’t require stitches. However, there are certain things to pay close attention to when you’re determining whether a cut needs more urgent medical attention. 

These include:

  1. You see bone, tendon, muscle or fatty tissue, even if bleeding is not severe.
  2. The cut is on the face.
  3. The cut was made by a person or animal.
  4. There is excessive bleeding that doesn’t stop after 10 minutes of pressure.
  5. The wound is so wide that it can’t be held back together with little pressure.
  6. Seeing visible debris, like gravel or glass, in the cut.
  7. The cut has ragged edges.

Size of the cut

The size of a cut is important to pay attention to because lacerations have the potential to be very deep. But what exactly classifies a cut as “deep?” According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, a deep cut is more than a quarter-inch deep. When a cut is this deep, or more than a half-inch in length, these are generally cuts that need stitches.

This is shorter than the diameter of a pinky nail for most people and maybe wide or gaping. A cut that requires stitches may even be deep enough to show tendons, muscles, ligaments, nerves, blood vessels, or bone. 

If you’re ever in doubt of how deep a cut might be, it’s always best to seek medical attention.

How to determine if you need stitches

If you are unsure of how to know if you need stitches, it is probably best to consult an expert. Once you’ve examined how deep a cut is, consider these additional factors when deciding whether you have a cut requiring stitches

Amount of blood loss

Cuts that need stitches will bleed profusely and can be difficult to stop, even when direct pressure is applied. If a cut is gushing like this for more than 10 minutes and not forming a clot, stitches are likely necessary. If the cut is spurting blood, this can indicate that the injury is through an artery and is more severe.

Location on the body

Skin cuts anywhere on the body can be severe. Cuts in locations like the chest, neck, or abdomen are considered emergency injuries. If a laceration is located somewhere like the genitals, face, head, eyelids, or joints, these are more sensitive areas and can be more damaging if not treated properly. 

What happens if you don’t get stitches? Especially in areas like these, deep cuts can lead to more scarring, a higher risk for infection, and even functional impairments.

The cause of injury

Lacerations can be caused by a whole slew of things. But a cut caused by an accidental slip of a knife while cooking can come with different risks than one caused by a rusty nail or an animal bite, for example. 

The latter can put you at a higher risk for infection, and an antibiotic, tetanus shot, or rabies treatment may be required in addition to stitches to close the wound. Even if the cut doesn’t appear to be very deep, it’s best to have these types of wounds checked out by a doctor anyway.

Signs of infection

Any type of laceration on your skin can become infected. In addition to examining depth, blood loss, location, and cause of a cut, it’s important to know the signs of infection. Infected wounds will require further medical treatment, like an antibiotic. 

Some of the most common signs of an infected cut can include fever, redness, swelling, pain, and tenderness. Infection can also cause pus, drainage, and red streaks that spread out around the site.

Basic treatment for cuts

How to know if you need stitches is important, but so is knowing how to treat a cut right away when determining whether you need medical attention. 

“Most of the time, a doctor stitches up a wound to simply bring the tissue back together, and that pressure will stop the bleeding and help prevent infection,” said Dr. Seth Podolsky, vice chairman for the Cleveland Center’s Emergency Services Institute.

In the meantime, here are some basic first aid tips for treating a cut:

  1. With a clean cloth, rag, gauze, or bandage, apply direct pressure to the wound. Hold the wound in an elevated position above the heart, to help slow or stop the bleeding. 
  2. If the blood is gushing and not slowing down with pressure applied, maintain the pressure for 10 minutes without a break. This may take more than one cloth, but rather than replacing the original one, just layer a new one on top.
  3. If you’re able to stop the bleeding, gently rinse with soap and water to clean it and remove any debris. Do not apply friction or scrub the wound as this can open it back up. 
  4. Gently pat dry with a clean cloth. Cover the cut with a bandage.

Of course, the best approach for cuts is to reduce your risk of getting them in the first place. The most effective prevention methods are safety practices in places where you’re handling potentially dangerous objects. For instance, when you’re cooking in the kitchen or performing handiwork in your home.

Does urgent care do stitches?

Yes, most urgent care centers can perform stitches. Unlike an emergency room, most urgent care centers have short wait times and are much more affordable. And there’s no need to worry about the quality of care – Urgent Care's centers offer caring, highly skilled medical teams. They are also open during non-business hours.

If you're faced with a sudden injury like a cut, try to stay calm, apply direct pressure, and elevate the wound. If it doesn’t stop bleeding after 10 minutes, then it’s time to seek immediate medical care as you have a cut requiring stitches.

By visiting your neighborhood urgent care center, you can get in, get out and get back to life. No hassles.

Visit urgent care

If you’re ever faced with a bleeding cut and you don’t know what to do, examine it closely. If you have a cut that doesn’t stop bleeding after following the basic first aid steps above, or if you’re concerned and unsure how to address a wound, visit a Urgent Care center near you. We’ll be ready to treat your injury and make sure you’re clear on how to know if you need stitches in the future. Accidents happen — but you can always be prepared for them.