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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