Does This Wound Need Stitches?

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on October 01, 2021
4 min read

You’re chopping food for dinner and slice yourself by accident. Or maybe your child gets gashed while playing on gravel. It looks like it might be serious. 

First of all, if it’s an emergency, call 911. Some signs are when the injury:

  • Bleeds excessively
  • Spurts blood
  • Does not stop bleeding after 10 minutes of firm pressure
  • Is to the chest, abdomen, or neck
  • Happens along with any emergency symptoms: severe pain, fast breathing or trouble breathing, vomiting, dizziness, unconsciousness
  • Is to the eye or in the throat. If something is stuck in those areas, leave it in place. Keep the person calm.

If the injury is not an emergency, but is worse than a simple scrape or scratch, you may not be sure what to do. Do you just bandage deeper cuts and wounds, or do you go get stitches?

Stitches in your skin are like those in your clothes -- a run of thread that holds things together. They’re made from lots of different materials, such as nylon or silk. And some, like the ones used for mouth injuries, dissolve on their own.

When you need them, stitches are important because they:

  • Give you support and strength while your skin closes up
  • Lower your chances of bleeding and infection
  • Minimize scars

So it helps to know when to take care of a cut on your own and when you need to see a doctor.

From the size of the wound to its location, there are a lot of signs that you need stitches or at least to have a doctor check things out.

How big is it? You’ll want to see a doctor if the wound:

  • Looks very deep, even if it’s not especially long or wide
  • Is more than a half-inch long
  • Opens so wide that you can’t get the edges together with just a little pressure
  • Has ragged edges
  • Has debris in it such as dirt, glass, or gravel

How badly is it bleeding? You’ll likely need stitches if the wound:

  • Bleeds enough to soak through a bandage
  • Keeps bleeding even after you apply direct pressure for 5 to 10 minutes
  • Spurts blood

What caused it? For some wounds, you may need a tetanus shot as well as stitches. Tetanus is one of the standard shots for children. Adults need a booster every 10 years.

Get care right away if the wound is from an:

  • Animal or human bite
  • Dirty or rusty object
  • Pointed object that might have driven deep into the skin, especially if the wound happened through the bottom of a shoe -- stepping on a nail, for example

Where is the wound? See your doctor if the wound is on any of these areas:

  • Around a joint, such as your elbow or knee
  • Touching a bone
  • Face
  • Hand
  • Genitals
  • Mouth
  • Near your eye

Is it getting infected? Finally, you’ll need a doctor if you or a child in your care has any signs of infection:

  • Chills or fever of 100 F or higher
  • Red streaks near the wound
  • Skin gets redder or more painful
  • Sore is warm, swollen, or oozing pus
  • Feeling like you’re going to throw up

If you have any doubts, it’s best to call your doctor.

If you do need stitches, here are a few tips before you head to the doctor.

Leave it in. If you have an object, such as a nail, stuck through your skin, leave it there. It may keep the bleeding from getting worse. But if the object that caused the puncture is small and you can easily remove it, do so.

Don’t eat or drink. This one’s mostly for kids. They may need medicine to keep them calm so the doctor can put stitches in. If they’ve had anything to eat or drink, they may have to wait longer for treatment.

Apply pressure. Use a clean towel or bandage to apply direct pressure to the wound. Try to keep the injured area raised above the heart to help stop or slow bleeding. If blood soaks through, don’t remove the old bandage. Just put another one right on top of it.

Clean the wound. If you can, clean the injury. Don’t use hydrogen peroxide or iodine – both can irritate your wound. Also, avoid scrubbing. Instead, you can:

  • Wash your hands with soap and water.
  • Run tap water over the wound to clean it out. Then, if possible, wash the area with mild soap and water and rinse again.
  • Pat dry the injured area with a clean towel. Avoid anything fluffy that might stick to the wound, such as cotton balls.
  • Apply an antibiotic cream.
  • Put a clean bandage over it to protect the wound from dirt or further injury.

Treat the pain.  For pain, give acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Check with the doctor first, though, if you have any medical conditions or take any other medicines.