Cuts and scrapes happen all the time. From a mishap with a kitchen knife to a fall on the playground, you probably have Band-Aids on hand so you can treat minor injuries.
But how do you decide which injuries you can handle at home and which need medical attention? It’s not always easy to tell. Samia Kadri, a Banner Health family nurse practitioner, explained some of the things to consider when you’re deciding how to treat a cut or scrape.
- How serious is the injury? You can probably treat cuts that only affect the top of the skin at home. Cuts that reach deeper tissues need medical care, especially if they expose fat tissue, muscle, tendon or bone.
- What caused the cut? Any cuts from dog, cat, animal or human bites need urgent care— you may need antibiotics to prevent infection. “These are the injuries that often cause infections and require hospitalization,” Kadri said. Cuts from metal also need urgent care to prevent infection and make sure your tetanus vaccines are up to date. You generally need a tetanus shot every 10 years, but if you have a complicated injury, you’ll want to make sure your most recent shot was within five years.
- How extensive is the bleeding? If the bleeding doesn’t stop in a few minutes, seek medical care.
- What other health conditions do you have? If you have diabetes or take blood thinners, you should see a health care provider for evaluation.
- What other symptoms do you have? If you have numbness or weakness in or around the wound, think you might have a foreign object in the wound, can’t bend a finger or toe, or think you could have a fracture, you should get medical care right away.
Here’s how to treat minor injuries at home
If the affected area involves the top layer of skin or is a scrape like road rash, clean it with mild soap and water, apply antibiotic ointment and cover it with a bandage.
Here’s what to do if your cut or scrape is more serious
For more severe injuries, clean the wound gently with soap and water if possible, then apply pressure with your hands, using a clean dressing.
In most cases, you’ll want to head to an urgent care center, where they can evaluate and treat your injury. If it’s severe, they can refer you to the emergency department. If the bleeding is excessive or involves an artery, go to an emergency department or call 911.
Don’t delay in seeking care. If your cut needs stitches or glue, a health care professional needs to treat it within 18 to 24 hours.
In most cases, you can see your primary care provider for follow-up care.
Signs of infection to watch for as your wound heals
There’s always a risk of infection when you damage the protective barrier of the skin. “Even small wounds can become infected, Kadri said. “These signs and symptoms apply to all wounds, small or large.” Watch for:
- Increased pain
- Increased swelling or redness
- Pus or drainage from the wound that smells bad
- Numbness or weakness
If you see these signs, contact your primary care provider.
[For tips on how to prevent scarring, check out How You Can Minimize the Appearance of Unsightly Scars.]
The bottom line
For a lot of cuts and scrapes, home treatment is all you need to heal quickly. But for major injuries—and even some that might seem minor—it’s safer and smarter to see a health care professional. These tips can help you make the call.
Learn more about how to care for injuries with these articles:
- First Aid Kit Essentials and Medicine Cabinet Must-Haves
- Urgent Care or Emergency Room? How to Know Where to Go
- Ice vs. Heat: Which Method Is Better to Treat Aches and Pain?
- Why It's Time to Get Hydrogen Peroxide Out of Your Medicine Cabinet