When to Get Stitches

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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.

When to Get Stitches

Curved suture needle and thread.

by James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

Do I need stitches, Doc? It’s a question patients who come in with cuts often ask me. Or something like, “I feel so silly wasting your time over a little cut.” So how do you know when to get stitches?

I say, if in doubt, get the cut seen by some health-care provider. And if you’re coming, try to make it within the first eight to 12 hours. The longer you wait, the more likely it’s going to get infected even after its cleaned and sutured.

Of course, this blog is about when you can’t get medical help right away. Always the main thing is, stop the bleeding. If the wait is going to be hours, clean obvious debris. If it’s going to be over 12 hours, see the post on how to treat a cut.

But how do you know if you even need stitches?

Here are some types of cuts that may need stitches:

  • A gaping cut. It’s going to be very slow to heal and therefore have a high risk of infection.
  • Cuts over a joint—even small ones. Every time you move the joint, the wound will open up, making it harder to heal.
  • Facial cuts, to minimize scarring. Sometimes a doctor can use a medical glue on these.
  • Cuts that won’t stop bleeding, despite pressure. For these, go to the ER if you can.

What Stitches Accomplish

They close a wound—put the skin’s edges back together. This makes it easier for the wound to heal and accomplishes two things:

  1. Seals the wound against outside infection.
  2. Decreases scarring.

Getting stitches is not the only important reason to see a doctor for a cut. Other reasons are covered in another post.

Hope these tips about when to get stitches help. I welcome comments and questions.

  • devonte grimes

    Hi doctor I got elbowed in my mouth a few days ago an I have a nice cut on the inside of my top lip with some swelling, what could I do to make it heal faster an stop the pain

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

      Ice for swelling. Irrigate with tap water to keep clean. see a doctor if it starts looking worse–increased swelling, redness, infection.

  • Nick

    I cut my finger pretty bad recently. Right after the knife left my hand I looked and say white in the wound before it started to bleed badly. The nurse couldn’t see that deep in the wound when I got there. Was it tendon? if I were in a survival situation how would I treat a finger with a cut tendon? What would be the damage if a professional healthcare provider was never contacted?

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

      Nick, good question. I have a post on injured tendons here http://www.thesurvivaldoctor.com/2014/01/27/tendon-injury/ and an ebook called “The Survival Doctor’s Guide to Wounds” that you can find by clicking on the books tab at the top of this page.

  • A.O.

    I have a wound on my arm that is a couple days old and I believe it is about one inch by two inches, the skin drops off into the wound on one side and stretches out on the other and the placement also makes me think it cannot be stitched up. I think this because I had gruesome wounds years ago after a car accident that they said they could do nothing to do but let heal without stitches. The bleeding on the current wound stopped a few hours after the accident and I treated it with peroxide and creams and clean gauze and medical tape I got from the store. I guess my question is for a wound so wide like that should I try to get stitches anyway, or since healing has already begun is it too late? The wound is rather deep as well but I don’t believe I’ve hit any nerves or veins.

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  • http://www.thesurvivaldoctor.com James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

    Your welcome, Chris.

  • http://www.arcpointus.com/worcester Chris McNabb

    Just last week someone I know had a friend who cut her hand ice skating. Their was so much blood that she rushed to the emergency room to get stitches. The cut ended up being 1/8″ and was super glued shut. Had I known what I know now, I would have recommended she not go. Thanks.