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.
  • 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.
  • 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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  • Carl D

    I broke a glass into my finger between first and second knuckle about a year ago very deep. I did the best I could, bleeding stopped, and it has now scarred over. Concerning me now is the ghost pains I get in other hand, the numbness, and occasional shooting pain when I carry something too quickly. Is it possible for internal bleeding to still be occurring or am I just going to have to get used to this?

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      I don’t think the pain in the other hand would be related to the hand that was cut. And to my knowledge, you wouldn’t have internal bleeding from a cut hand. But if the pain is persistent I’d have it checked out to see if someone can figure out the real cause.

  • Edward

    Hi, i injected my finger with a needle while sewing, i pressed the the figure to drive off the contaminated blood but found something pop up. after looking at it looks like either a capillary, or a vain, small like a pin but no blood coming out. what should i do with this part poping out and can it be of any danger.

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      unless it just a piece of flesh I’m not sure what it would be. If it’s bothering you a lot have someone check it out.

  • brittani

    I have a tiny pin whole in my right arm above my elbow lime where you humorous is a tiny hole ive applied pressure and it will not stop when it first happened I bent my arm to look at it an blood squirted out if it but now it just keeps oozing out I have cleaned it and applied pressure and bandages its a tiny whole but filling my bandages with blood rather fast and I’ll not stop any advice

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Applying direct pressure with your hand for about 15 minutes without looking to see if the bleeding has stopped will usually give the blood enough time to clot. If that doesn’t work, a doctor needs to check it.

  • Wilow

    I was doing some chores around the house and then I had accidentally cut my foot open while moving a whiteboard. The cut is really deep and it hurts whenever I move it. Actually it hurts in general moving or not. And when I touch it there is something sticking up.

  • Sky

    I got into an accident on my wrist. it was bleeding for quite awhile but doesn’t seem too deep. I have a numb type of feeling in my pinky finger, is that weird?

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      If it doesn’t go away in a few days you may have injured a nerve and need to have it checked out.

  • Christina

    My father is a diabetic he hits his middle finger and blood started squirting out about 2 feet across the room. At times he gets it to stop but if he slightly bangs it blood starts squirting out all over again. He’s told his doctor but they said they can’t do anything for him unless he goes in when he’s actually bleeding. At times he can be bleeding for 7 or 8 hours.

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Christina, you should be able to stop any bleeding of the finger with pressure. If you’re not sure, check out some of my posts on wounds. Of course if you take the pressure off, the bleeding may start back, especially if it’s an artery. In addition, he should see the doctor when he’s bleeding. As soon as it starts, call the doctor’s office and find out if he should go to the office, ER, or urgent care clinic. If the doctor is not available by phone or has someone on call for him, an urgent care would be a good choice.

      • Christina

        Yes the bleeding does stop with pressure but right when we stop applying pressure it starts up again. Today he is not bleeding but yesterday he was bleeding so long he started to get dizzy. Yesterday his doctors office was closed. Is the emergency or urgent care the best option when blood is squirting out of his finger and we can’t get it to stop? I read online you can you cornstarch or sugar to stop the bleeding but wasn’t sure if that was such a great idea.

  • Cheyenne

    I accidentally cut myself inbetween my knuckles and it will not stop bleeding even with pressure. It’s even spurting blood everywhere.

  • Tiffany

    I sliced the tip of my thumb while cutting potatoes it has had constant pressure and is still bleeding 5.5 hours after the fact. My thumb tip is very white and swollen and thumb is pulsating along with my heart beat. Any advice? Took tramadol but it still aches.

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      I can’t give you individual advise. In general, if you sliced a small, shallow piece off the tip, you may need to apply constant, direct pressure for 15 minutes or more and then continue the pressure with a pressure bandage.
      If you’ve taken an aspirin or other blood thinner within the last 24 hours, it may take longer. If it won’t stop then, it’s cut deeply, or cut anywhere but the tip, you should see a doctor.

  • Ashley

    I gashed my pinky under the nail abd ib the side, the hispital cleaned it last night i changed bandage this morning and there us still so much blood. Is that normal and should i be changing the bandage every time it bleeds through?

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      If it is still bleeding, you should check with the hospital or follow up with your regular doc/urgent care.

  • Kayla

    I cut my feet this morning it haven’t stop bleeding and its currently in the afternoon. Its hard to walk for me and I see white meat. I tried wrapping it hurt I tried without wrapping it still hurts. Im way too scared to go to the hospital whar should I do?

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      An urgent care clinic? Your regular doctor?