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Cuts, Scratches, and Scrapes

You might think a cut or scrape is no big deal. But any time the skin gets broken, there's a risk of infection. So it helps to understand how to care for cuts and scrapes at home — and know when you need to see a doctor.

What Should I Do if I Get a Cut?

A small cut or scrape will usually heal well without medical care. Here's what to do if the injury isn't serious:

  • Stop bleeding by pressing a clean, soft cloth against the wound for a few minutes. If the wound is bleeding a lot, you'll need to hold pressure for longer (sometimes up to 15 minutes).
  • As you keep the pressure on and the wound, avoid the urge to peek. Lifting the bandage may start the bleeding again.
  • Clean the wound. Run water over the cut for 5 minutes. Then use soap to gently wash the cut or scrape thoroughly. If there's dirt or debris in the wound (like gravel from a scrape), remove it if you can — a soft, damp cloth can help. Cleaning the wound helps get infection-causing bacteria out of the injured area. If you can't get all the dirt out, call your doctor's office.
  • Put a light layer of an antibiotic ointment around the cut to kill germs. Make sure you're not allergic to the medicines in the ointment.
  • Cover it with gauze or other type of bandage. A bandage helps prevent germs from getting into the cut and causing an infection. If the bandage gets wet or dirty, change it right away.
  • Each day, take off the bandage and gently wash the injury. Watch for signs of infection (redness, swelling, pain, or liquid draining out).
  • To prevent infection and reduce scarring, don't pick at the scab or skin around the wound.

When Should I See a Doctor for a Cut?

If a cut bleeds a lot, get an adult or call your doctor right away. Cover the wound with a clean bandage or cloth. If the blood soaks through, don't remove the first bandage — put a new covering on top of it. Hold the injured body part up above your head (or as high as you can) to help slow the bleeding.

If a wound is very long or deep or if its edges are far apart, a doctor will need to bring the edges close together so they can heal. The doctor might do this with stitches. Don’t worry — if stitches are needed, a doctor or nurse will numb your skin with medicine first.

If you get stitches, you'll probably need to go back to the doctor in 5 to 10 days to get them out. To remove stitches, a doctor or nurse will snip the thread with scissors and gently pull out the threads. It tickles a bit and feels a little funny, but usually doesn't hurt. Some stitches dissolve on their own so you don’t need to go back.

Doctors sometimes close small, straight cuts on some parts of the body with medical glue or steri-strips (thin pieces of medical tape). Glue and steri-strips will dissolve or fall off on their own.

Getting a cut usually means that there might be a scar on the skin after it heals. If your cut needs to be stitched or glued but you don't see a doctor in time, your scar may be more noticeable.

Cuts from a bite need to see the doctor. Germs from an animal or human mouth can get into the cut  and you will usually need antibiotics to prevent infection. Your doctor or nurse will also ask questions to make sure the animal didn't have rabies.

Cuts from something dirty or rusty, like a nail could lead to a tetanus infection if your tetanus shots are not up to date. You (or your mom or dad) can check your medical records to be sure that you had a tetanus shot recently. If you haven't, you will probably need to get one.

What Are the Signs a Cut Is Infected?

Sometimes, a cut, scratch, or scrape starts out as no big deal, but then gets infected. A skin infection happens when germs get into the skin.

If you notice any of these signs of infection, call your doctor right away:

  • redness around the cut
  • red streaking spreading from the cut
  • increased swelling or pain around the cut
  • white, yellow, or green liquid coming from the cut
  • fever

The doctor will prescribe antibiotics to help your body fight off the infection.

Luckily, most small cuts, scratches, and abrasions will go away on their own, thanks to your body's amazing ability to heal itself. If a cut looks serious or infected, though, call your doctor.

Reviewed by: Melanie L. Pitone, MD
Date reviewed: September 2020