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.

  • Abraham

    My cat recently scratched me when it was running from our neighbor’s dogs. Most of the wounds are superficial but I do have a puncture wound to my middle finger past the DIP joint. My concern is that there is a skin flap that overlies the wound bed and I can’t completely visualize it even when I manage to move the flap to the side. I’ve already been to the ER and been prescribed Augmentin, so I’m not too concerned about infection. My question is will the wound heal even if unviable tissue overlies the wound bed? Also, is it possible that tiny debris would prevent proper healing of the injury?

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

      In general, tiny debris could be a cause of infection, not delayed healing. If a flap of skin dies on top of the wound, the flap will eventually come off on its own or with your help. Unless really deep, the wound will heal from underneath. If you have problems or concerns, you should follow up with your regular doctor.

      • Abraham

        Thank you very much for your time and answers!

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

          You’re welcome.

  • Liza

    I was working in my garden with manure 2 days ago. I got a small cut on my elbow. I woke this morning and released the cut was a bit red and tender. The nodes in my armpit feel a bit tender and swollen. I pulled the scab off and applied antibiotic ointment. Should I see a Dr. for antibiotics. I’m a bit vague on when my last tetanus shot was.

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

      Yes.

  • Theresa5691

    i cut my thumb opening a canned ham. It bled for a long time.I believe the bleeding has stopped but my hand is turning black and blue in between 2 veins
    . Should I be concerned?

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

      I can’t really tell you that without an exam. It would depend on the depend on the depth, length, and what exactly you cut. In general, a small bit of the hand turning black and blue would just be the blood that’s seeped into the tissues of the hand. Of course, if it’s cold and closer to the tip than the wound is, it could be a damaged artery and that would be serious.

  • lynne23

    I think it will be fine. The feeling is coming back in my arm and elbow area. Thank you.

  • lynne23

    Thanks. If there were nerve damage how quickly should I get it looked at?

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

      Typically nerves can be repaired within a few days of injury.

  • lynne23

    Some dishes fell into my sink and as i was removing them a knife standing straight up went into my hand.towards the pinky in my palm. The cut is almost 1/2 inch long and maybe as deep. My husband cleaned it and superglued it, but i wonder if i should get it checked out.

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

      It’s your call. I do have a video on assessing a cut that might give you a little more information. But it won’t make the decision for you. http://www.thesurvivaldoctor.com/2011/11/16/video-how-to-assess-and-clean-a-cut/

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

      I can’t answer that for you, individually, without examining it. In general, if the cut looks like it might open up because it’s over a joint would be a reason. Or you’re having trouble moving a finger, you might have damaged a tendon. Because of sweat, glue or tape doesn’t stick as well on the hand. Picture how it would look if it opened back up. Would it be wide enough not to heal well? One other thing. If it starts looking more than a little red or looks in any other way like it’s getting infected, see a doctor to start on some antibiotics.

  • Smiley

    My husband cut his finger at work a little over a week ago. He got the bleeding stopped and the skin has healed, but where the cut was, his finger has stiffened and is red. It is the last joint of his pinky finger and bendable, but stiff. There is no open wound now, so I am not sure how to treat it. Does he need to go to a doctor? Thanks!

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

      Smiley,
      I’ve been away from the internet a few days. Sorry. If it’s still not better, he needs to see a doctor. The worry wound be infection or tendon damage.

  • Danny Binz

    Hi ,

    Dropped a knife while taking wallpaper off a wall . The knife hit just left of my knuckle (right hand). I have a large vein that goes in that direction gets smaller the closer it gets to the knuckle. The tip of the knife went in about 1/4 to 3/8″. Very painful if i move my middle finger. I have a bandaid on it now that stopped the bleeding. Do you think it should heal on its own or is a trip to the doc is in order?. This just happened about 30 mins ago. Thanks

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

      Danny, superficial veins like that heal just fine if you can stop the bleeding. I’d worry more that you might have injured a tendon. Also, cuts are harder to heal in the joint area because you can never keep the area completely still. If you have any questions about the tendon, if it hit the joint, or if the wound is over, say, 1/4 inch long. I’d get to a doc. Call yours or go to an urgent care.

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