When to See a Doctor for a Cut

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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 See a Doctor for a Cut

by James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

When to see a doctor for a cut?

Crash. A brick flies through a window. Your spouse is cut and bleeding, but otherwise unhurt. The streets are jammed with rioters. There’s no ambulance available, and even if you could get to the hospital, it’s packed.  Should you fight the crowd or stay put? The urgency of when to see a doctor for a cut depends on several things.

There’s not much you can do with the following wounds except to stop the bleeding and get to a doctor as soon as possible:

  • Cuts that have punctured the abdominal cavity (because of the risk of unseen bleeding and extreme likelihood of serious infections).
  • Neck wounds with profuse bleeding or that include the airway.
  • Cuts of a major artery. (The blood usually spurts, and the tissue distal to the wound becomes cool and dark.) If the artery is not surgically reconnected within hours, the tissue dies due to lack of blood supply. After that, the dead tissue needs a surgical amputation, or it’s sure to get infected, and the infection is sure to spread into the healthy flesh and the bloodstream. You can get very sick and even die.

Other cuts are less urgent, but are at high risk for infection. In the following situations, clean the cut well, and consider taking an antibiotic, or at least use an antibiotic ointment. Then, try to see a doctor within a day or two.

  • You have diabetes or certain other chronic diseases. (You heal slower, and your wounds are more likely to get infected.)
  • The tissue around your cut, however small, becomes swollen, more tender, or more red, or the cut oozes a cloudy pus.
  • You think the injury has involved the bone. You want to prevent a bone infection if at all possible. It’s much harder to treat and can cause serious damage.
  • You can’t clean the wound adequately because it’s too deep, grimy, or painful.
  • You haven’t had a tetanus shot within ten years.

Some cuts injure more than just skin. See a doctor within as few days, if possible, if:

  • There’s numbness distally (on the side farthest from the heart). You may have cut a nerve that needs repair.
  • You’ve lost joint range of motion. You may have cut a tendon that needs repair.

Hope these tips help. I welcome comments and questions.

  • Adam C. Misra

    Is there any special precautions to take for cuts made while sharpening tools that may have metal filings and oil carried into them? I know a Tetanus shot is a must but I have had issues with getting all the mixed contaminants out, leaving the scar with a grey tinge. Will the material just work its way out like myriad, tiny splinters?

  • Kitty

    My screen door closed on my heel and i have a gapping laceration that extends the entir heel from just underneath the achilles to underneath the heel. I did go to urgent care for treatment but the pain is at times excruciating. I had some swelling but loosened the ace bandage some which helped relieve some of the pain. I have not uncovered the area to inspect it since i have follow up on monday. When foot is elecated the pain is there but manageable but if i lower it to walk it throbs immensely with pain. Very difficult to walk and appears swelling decreased some. How do i know if infected or should see my doctor opposed to UC physician?

  • Mama D

    i sliced into my finger washing a glass, it is on the side of my knuckle, i am on methotrexate for RA. i have cleaned it, put antibiotic ointment but not sure if i should go to ER to have them look at it..

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

      Sorry, I’ve been out. How’s the finger?

      • Mama D

        I didn’t go in, just kept it clean and it’s coming along. Thanks for asking! Have a great day!

  • Jennifer

    Just stabbed myself with a knife that I was getting hair off the bottom of the vacuum but it’s not bleeding much but hurts pretty bad..don’t know if I hit the bone on my shin..don’t know if I should get it checked out or just clean it..

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

      Sorry, Jennifer, I’ve been off a few weeks. How’s your cut?

  • morgan

    I have a cut on the top of my foot about 3-4 cm below my big toe. the cut is currently about 3 cm across and is gaping aprox .5 cm (this is exactly 1 week after the trauma). whats concerning me is that1) it is just now becoming hardened and there is still some occasional clear liquid, 2) after i took a shower yesterday, the inside of it was a weird grey color (it looks normal now), 3) redness is
    radiating from the cut up towards my toes and is moving in the direction of my
    pinkie toe. The red area is a little bit swollen and a little bit warm. However,
    it is painless but not numb, and no weird smell. Ive had redness surrounding
    cuts before, but it goes away, and this is a week after the initial trauma, so
    do I need to see a doctor, or is this normal for such a large wound? I assume
    the healing process is drastically slower for more gaping wounds like this, but
    I don’t want to let it get too far either. Thank you!

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

      If the redness is getting worse, that could mean a spreading infection and a reason to see a doctor.

      • morgan

        ok ill keep an eye on it thank you! today it looks like the redness is spreading, but fading. i assume thats a good sign.thank you for taking the time to help people with their questions <3

  • Dawn

    My shin got scraped when it slipped through an old cattle guard I was walking over. I cleaned it and it looked like a normal scratch/rub with some missing skin. It has now been over a month and the once small scratch has turned black and seems to be getting deeper into my shin. I had a tetanus shot 5 years ago, but the wound isn’t healing and is still pussing. Wondering if its something I can take care of myself or if it truly needs to be seen by a specialist? Thanks- Getting worried…

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

      It’s been a month, it should have healed, or almost. Sounds like you should see a doctor. Consider checking with your regular doctor or going to an urgent care clinic.

  • Leah

    Yesterday, I cut the outside of my right index finger. When I removed the gauze, the cut began to bleed again. Every time I remove the gauze, it sticks to the cut. Today I was busy, and my finger began to bleed, and the blood had soaked the gauze pad. The cut has been bleeding off and on for 2 days. Today, I wrapped my finger with an absorbent pad, with some antibiotic cream. The cut seems to have stopped bleeding. I have recently had hip replacement surgery(3 weeks ago). Should I go to the hospital? I also have diabetes and am taking a blood thinner for my hip.Please help. Leah C.M.

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

      It partly depends on the size of the cut and the amount of bleeding. I general, I would think putting nonstick gauze and some ointment would keep it from sticking but, if that’s not working, you should see your doctor. If it’s not bleeding badly, perhaps go to or call your regular doctor or go to an urgent care clinic.

  • Guest

    Thank you! That’s what I was thinking too. I wonder if I didn’t damage something in my ankle.

  • Tamra

    I cut the inside my ankle by dropping a butcher knife on it. The cut was small, less than half an inch long but it was gaping. It didn’t bleed much. I cleaned the wound with warm running water, dried it, applied two steri strips and antibiotic ointment and covered it with a bandaid. Shortly after it happened, my ankle started hurtin when I stepped down on my foot. Now my ankle is swollen above and below the cut. I have a blood clotting disorder and I’m on blood thinners. Is this something that should be looked at by my doctor?

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

      Sounds like it.

      • Tamra

        Thank you! That’s what I was thinking too. I wonder if I didn’t injure something in my ankle.

  • Lauren

    I sliced off about a 1/4 of a dime’s worth of flesh from my left index finger at the top, next to the fingernail. I was able to stop the bleeding by applying pressure on the wound with some paper towels. I’ve been keeping the wound covered with anti biotic ointment, but I’m still wondering whether or not I should see a doctor. There’s no blood flow but it’s a fairly deep cut and it looks like blood is sitting on the inside of the wound. There’s no serious pain and no blood coming through the bandaging, but I’m concerned about the size with infections and whether or not I need stitches (or if it’s even possible- it’s a wide cut).

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

      If you’re not sure, then you should see your doctor. Perhaps ask at the front desk could anyone take a look at it and see if needs to be formally seen.