When you get a cut, you might say a few expletives because it hurts, freak out because, ugh, blood, or both. Then, of course, comes figuring out how to stop the bleeding ASAP. First aid to the rescue.
Not only will a few first aid techniques help stop a cut from bleeding, they’ll ensure your wound is clean and ready to heal as well as possible (this is key in preventing infection). Here’s what you need to know.
When you get a cut, your body immediately kicks into overdrive to try to stop the bleeding (but it may need a little help).
It does this via coagulation, aka the process of forming a blood clot, Joshua Russell, M.D., an emergency medicine physician at Legacy-GoHealth Urgent Care, tells SELF. (This is a normal mechanism, not like a blood clot that can form in the veins of your legs and, if it travels to your lungs, can put your life at risk.) In this complex process known as a coagulation cascade, an enzyme in your blood called thrombin allows a protein called fibrinogen to form a net-like structure that hardens and contracts. Coupled with platelets, which are components of your blood that plug up broken blood vessels, this helps to form a blood clot.
That’s usually how it works, anyway—there are some exceptions. Medications like aspirin can thin the blood, and health conditions like hemophilia or idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura (ITP) can mess with the clotting mechanism in your body. This can all make it harder than usual to stop a cut’s bleeding on your own.
Your first step after you get a cut depends on how big the gash is.
If you nicked your finger while slicing up some tomatoes or cut yourself while shaving, you’ll want to first wash your hands to avoid infecting the wound, says the Mayo Clinic. Then, grab a paper towel, gauze, or tissue, and use it to apply pressure to the area to try to get the bleeding to stop, Matthew Kippenhan, M.D., an emergency medicine physician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, tells SELF. Pressure on the wound helps to slow blood flow, which allows your body to more easily form a clot. The bleeding should stop or slow down significantly within a few minutes.
After that, you can gently run water over the wound and wash the area—not the wound itself—with soap. Apply an antibiotic cream to further avoid infection. Next up, you should cover the cut with a Band-Aid or gauze and tape (you should change this once a day, per the Mayo Clinic). This helps to protect it from outside germs or re-opening.
If you have a larger cut, the method is slightly different. “For larger cuts, stopping the bleeding immediately becomes a priority because it is possible to lose a significant amount of blood relatively quickly,” Dr. Russell says. That’s why he recommends applying direct, focused pressure on the site of the bleeding for at least 10 minutes to try to get it to stop. It can take several minutes before a stable clot begins to form, and using direct pressure on a wound will prevent significant blood loss in the meantime, he explains.
Once the bleeding has stopped, run tap water over the wound, wash around the area with soap (and clean hands!), then apply an antibiotic cream and a bandage, Dr. Kippenhan says.
In either scenario, you should get a tetanus shot if you haven’t had one in five years and the wound is dirty or deep.
Some parts of your body are going to bleed more than others, so don’t automatically get nervous if you see a lot of blood.
If you got what seems like a pretty minor cut on your shin, but it seems like it’s taking forever for the bleeding to stop, don’t panic.
“The amount of bleeding is determined by the blood flow to the area and the pressure in those blood vessels,” says Dr. Russell. Bleeding from your lower extremities, like your shins and ankles, can be pretty severe because gravity causes blood to pool in veins of the legs, he explains. And a cut on your head is likely to bleed a fair amount, just because it has a lot of blood vessels, Dr. Kippenhan says.
While cuts are often not a huge deal, there are some distinct signs you should head to the emergency room or otherwise get medical attention ASAP.
Those include seeing bone, muscle, or any similar structure, and having a cut that’s big enough to worry you, Brett Etchebarne, M.D., Ph.D., an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Michigan State University, tells SELF. Also, seek medical attention immediately if your blood is spurting instead of flowing normally, or if you haven’t stopped bleeding profusely even though you’ve gone through the above steps. These are all signs that you may need stitches to help close the wound or even surgery to repair internal damage.
It’s also a good idea to have a doctor look at any large cut over a joint (like your knee) since moving that joint could reopen the wound and cause issues with healing, Dr. Kippenhan says. Again, you might need stitches to make sure it can heal properly.
Another red flag is if you notice that you’re having any numbness or tingling after your injury. That could be a sign you cut an important nerve and didn’t realize it, Dr. Etchebarne says, so you know the drill: It’s time to see a doctor. Same goes for if you’ve noticed any signs of infection, like warmth, redness, or increasing pain.
Ultimately, if you have a cut and you’re not sure if you should get it checked out, call your doctor. Every cut is different, and they can help guide you on next steps.