by James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

Note: If you’re treating a cut right now, click here to read a different post. The article below is meant to be read before emergencies or for additional information. 

When you have a bad cut, all that bleeding can be scary, but how much blood you’re dripping isn’t necessarily an indicator of how bad the wound is—unless, of course, it’s a large amount. Here’s a better guide to figuring that out.

As I said in the post about how to treat skin lacerations, direct pressure will usually control the bleeding to give you some breathing time. While the bleeding is stopped, perform the following steps.

To tell how bad a wound is:

1. Check the depth.

The deeper the wound, the more likely a large artery is involved, making the wound bleed more or cutting off important circulation. That makes it more essential to get medical help as soon as possible. Until you can, all you can do is apply the pressure and pack the wound.

For a puncture wound, look at the object to try to determine how far it went in.

Note: If it’s a deep wound to the trunk of your body, see if you can visualize how deep it goes. If it goes into your chest or abdominal cavity, you need immediate expert care. The whole cavity has a high risk of becoming seriously infected. If that’s impossible, start antibiotics right away.

2. Check what’s been cut besides skin, fat and muscle.

  • Artery: If the area distal to the wound (away from the heart) is becoming cold or discolored it becomes more likely you’ve cut an essential artery. Try applying a little less pressure to make sure you’re not losing circulation simply because you’re pressing too hard.
  • Bone: If you think you’ve broken a bone close to the cut, the bone is at high risk for getting seriously infected. See an expert as soon as possible. Clean it out well, splint it, and start antibiotics immediately.
  • Nerve: If the area distal to the wound (away from the heart) is numb, you may have severed a nerve. In itself this is not an immediate emergency. You usually have a few days to see a surgeon.
  • Tendon: If you’ve lost movement, you may have cut a tendon. Again, not an emergency but needs to be seen within a few days for repair.

 3. Determine the type of cut.

  • For a puncture wound, approximate how deep it goes by checking the object that did the puncturing. If it punctured the chest or abdominal cavity, see the note in step one above.
  • Don’t get complacent just because a cut doesn’t bleed a lot. Dull or jagged cuts, say with a chainsaw, tend to pull and bruise the blood vessels more. The cut may be pretty severe and not bleed much because the vessels spasm and get smaller. Later they may begin to bleed more. If it looks deep or bad, stuff it full of clean cloth or gauze and tape it or wrap a bandage around it.
  • In turn don’t panic if a small cut by a sharp object, such as a sharp knife, bleeds more. The blood vessels don’t spasm as much.
  • Cuts bleed more on the face and fingers because there are more blood vessels in those areas.

Learn how to treat different types of wounds when you have no medical care here.