Curved suture needle and thread.

by James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

Do I need stitches, Doc? It’s a question patients who come in with cuts often ask me. Or something like, “I feel so silly wasting your time over a little cut.” So how do you know when to get stitches?

I say, if in doubt, get the cut seen by some health-care provider. And if you’re coming, try to make it within the first eight to 12 hours. The longer you wait, the more likely it’s going to get infected even after its cleaned and sutured.

Of course, this blog is about when you can’t get medical help right away. Always the main thing is, stop the bleeding. If the wait is going to be hours, clean obvious debris. If it’s going to be over 12 hours, see the post on how to treat a cut.

But how do you know if you even need stitches?

Here are some types of cuts that may need stitches:

  • A gaping cut. It’s going to be very slow to heal and therefore have a high risk of infection.
  • Cuts over a joint—even small ones. Every time you move the joint, the wound will open up, making it harder to heal.
  • Facial cuts, to minimize scarring. Sometimes a doctor can use a medical glue on these.
  • Cuts that won’t stop bleeding, despite pressure. For these, go to the ER if you can.

What Stitches Accomplish

They close a wound—put the skin’s edges back together. This makes it easier for the wound to heal and accomplishes two things:

  1. Seals the wound against outside infection.
  2. Decreases scarring.

Getting stitches is not the only important reason to see a doctor for a cut. Other reasons are covered in another post.

Hope these tips about when to get stitches help. I welcome comments and questions.