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.