Arteries Vs. Veins: How to Tell the Difference & Stop Bleeding

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This survival-medicine website provides general information, not individual advice. Most scenarios assume the victim cannot get expert medical help. Please see the disclaimer.

Arteries Vs. Veins: How to Tell the Difference and Stop the Bleeding

Arteries flow away from the heart (red). Veins flow back toward it (blue).

by James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

When trying to stop a cut from bleeding, you need to know how to tell the difference between a bleeding vein and a bleeding artery.

Memorize this saying: Arteries spurt. Veins don’t.

Arteries carry oxygen-rich blood from the heart to tissue. Veins drain the blood back to the heart to resupply it with oxygen.

Arteries pump. Veins dump.

Step 1: Apply pressure.

  • Use gauze or a clean cloth. If you don’t have anything else, use a gloved hand. If it’s yourself, as a last resort, use your bare hand. If it’s others, beware you could be exposing yourself to a blood-borne disease. Stuff a gash with a cloth (the cleanest you have) or gauze, and hold pressure. A shirt will do.

Step 2: Determine whether it’s an artery or vein.

  • If the blood is oozing, it’s a vein. The blood is probably also a darker color because it doesn’t have as much oxygen. The bleeding usually stops after about five minutes of pressure. If you can’t apply direct pressure, apply pressure just distal (toward fingers or toes) to the wound. Remember, it’s draining back to the heart.
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  • If the blood is spurting, it’s an artery. Arteries contract and expand to aid in pumping the flow. They may need more pressure to stop the bleeding. If pressure does stop it, hold the wound for up to fifteen minutes if you can. Then pack it with clean cloth and apply a bandage. The bleeding should be under control before closing the wound with suture or tape.
  • If you can’t apply enough pressure to stop the bleeding, try pressing down just proximal to the wound (the side of that’s closer to the heart). Remember, the blood is coming from the heart. Arteries are too deep to see them from your skin surface, but sometimes you can feel the pulsing. If you can’t, just press in different areas proximally until the bleeding stops. Then pack and bandage.
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  • A tourniquet placed proximal to the arterial bleeding (toward the heart) will stop it, but could cut off enough blood supply that you could lose limb. If you must, use material about two inches wide and wrap just tight enough to stop the bleeding. (The same goes for wrapping any bandage.) If you can wedge two fingers under it you’re probably okay, but still loosen it every few minutes to let the blood flow distally.

Note: Small cuts and scrapes are usually capillaries. They connect the arteries to the veins and are very small. Bleeding from capillaries can usually be stopped fairly easily. Even if they’re squirting, a little pressure for five to 10 minutes does the trick.

Step 3: Get medical care.

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  • Bobby

    I cut my finger at the tip. The bleed continued for 6 hours and was pulsing from the bandage in tune to my heart beat. The Doctor thinks it was a capilliary served by the palmar artery rather than the artery itself. However it took 8 changes of dressing over a 4 hour period so I lost a lot of blood. It’s 48 hours since the episode now and I’m going to have the dressing removed and renewed by a clean one. The throbbing has been constant which, they say, is good as it indicates that the artery is becoming sealed and trying to bleed. The final treatment was clinical ‘superglue’ – so hopefully that has sealed the wound. If not, and it starts to bleed again I will have to have surgery to open the wound again and then to closit with stitching. A query was raised at the hospital as to whether or not to surgically repair it straight away but they gave me a chance for it to heal itself, fortunately!

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Thanks for sharing, Bobby.

  • Cathy

    Varicose veins also spurt.

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Good point, Cathy. With varicose veins, if you lie down, they don’t. They spurt for the same reason puncturing a bucket of water with a nail does. Arteries spurt because they’re walls are actually pumping. If you’re standing or lying down and they pulsate. But, bottom line is you’re right. Seems everything has exceptions when I try to simplify. Thanks.

  • Jamesha

    I hit my pinkie toe on my front door and I have a rather big to the pinkie toe’s size skinned toe and it shows my white meat it hurts really bad and won’t stop bleeding plus I can’t even bend tor or move it around all I can feel is my big toe

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      If you’re asking me what to do specially, in your case, I can’t tell you that without seeing you as a patient. I’d suggest to see you’re own doctor. In general situations like that, the bleeding should stop with direct pressure (see my posts on wounds and lacerations). Then, if you can’t get to a doctor, you’d clean it etc., like I suggest in the posts.

      • Jamesha

        How am I supposed to bathe with it I don’t want it to burn

        • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

          For any cut, you must keep it clean, burning or not. For baths or showers, simply keep it dry. Some would tie a plastic bag around the area. Some wound just keep it out of the water.

          • Jamesha

            Ok thank you so much for your time sir.

  • jermiah

    i got cut deep in my finger near the tip bleed for about 10 20 minutes through the tip of my finger my doctor gave me 4 stitches in my finger and said i ripped a nerve that cant be fixed cuz its to small so its starting to branch out so i have perminite numb damage in my tip

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Yes, the digital nerve starts to branch and is too small to repair if it’s cut at the last joint (near the fingernail) or further out. Sometimes though, the feeling does return.

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  • Cassie

    I get nervous when they are looking for a vein. Is there any way that I can tell before they go after a vein?