Do You Really Need Stitches? Or will a Band-Aid do?

Bandage or Stitches?Your 5-year-old falls at the park again after attempting something insane, like jumping from the top of one picnic table to the other. He runs to you sobbing with his hand holding the side of his head, and all you can think is, “He knows better!” You interrupt your first adult conversation of the day to give him a hug only to see blood gushing out from between his fingers. After suppressing the urge to laugh hysterically, you switch to emergency mode, apply pressure, snag a piece of ice from another mom’s cooler, all the while making soothing sounds and saying, “You’re OK,” over and over.

Many parents have been there before, except for those rare creatures whose kids always make ‘good choices.’ For the rest of us, the next big question, after making sure he’ll live, is, “Do I really have to take him and my four other kids to the hospital and pay a $100 co-pay?”

This was me last Friday. Plus, my 3-month-old baby woke up because of all the shrieking and wanted to nurse. And my three other kids, 8 and under, were playing at the park and didn’t want to leave, “RIGHT NOW!”, and get in the car.

TIP : Find the closest urgent care clinics covered by your insurance before the next emergency. The co-pay is usually half what the ER costs. There’s no time to do this when the blood is gushing – I know!  Make sure to give them a call and ask specifics: do they place stitches, have an x-ray machine, cast broken bones, and have a nebulizer or ‘breathing treatment’ machine? You don’t want to arrive, only to find out it’s a geriatric urgent care.

So, I’ll share my hard-won knowledge with this quick and practical ‘How-to’ guide on wounds and stitches:

  1. How many layers deep is the cut?
  2. If the cut goes through multiple layers of skin, it usually needs stitches to keep the wound edges in the right place while it is healing. Not to be gross, but if you can see something besides skin, like bone or yellow bits of fat, deep in the cut, then you should get stitches. In general, a cut more than a ¼ in. deep should get stitches.

  3. How long is the cut and does it gape open?
  4. The longer the cut, the more the wound edges can move around and heal ‘crooked’ or with bunched up areas of skin. Also, if it gapes open it will likely heal that way with a wider area of scar tissue. A good rule of thumb is to get stitches if it is over ¾ of an inch long.

  5. Are the edges clean or ragged?
  6. A small cut by a kitchen knife is a great example of a cut that doesn’t need stitches. The straight edges of the wound will heal with almost no scar. An impact wound that has pulled the skin apart leaving ragged edges will have a hard time healing well. The ragged edges need to be trimmed smooth before stitching so they don’t bunch up while healing or die off providing a nice spot for an infection to take hold.

  7. Are there possible serious complications?
  8. This may seem like a no-brainer, but if the wound is near anything important, you should get medical treatment. This would be anywhere with important nerves, like cuts to the face, hands and feet. Also cuts deep and close to joints should be stitched for two reasons: One, they are a pain to keep from opening up every time you bend the joint, and two, an infection that gets into a joint can be very serious. Plus, make sure you have an updated tetanus shot if there are any suspicious objects involved in causing the wound.

  9. Where is the wound? (ie. Do you want a scar or not?)
  10. Ok, if you really don’t care what it’s going to look like afterwards, or you enjoy using the occasional scar as a conversation starter, then you really don’t need to get stitches for minor injuries. Your body will just fill in the area with scar tissue. Your main goal, in this case, is to clean the wound and keep it from getting infected.

If you decide to stay home (and save the copay)

  1. Start by cleaning the wound out well. Irrigate gently with lots of water and make sure to get any particles, rocks, slivers, etc., out of the wound.
  2. Put on an initial antibiotic treatment – ointment, first aid wash, etc.
  3. Apply any herbal wound remedies you like.
  4. Use a bandage to hold the wound closed in the way you want it to heal.

If you’re using a bandaid:

  • Get a good quality one that will stay on well – the fabric ones seem to work best on my kids.
  • Attach the bandaid to one side of the wound, pull the skin and wound closed, as straight as possible, and stick down on the other side.
  • Start at one edge of the wound and work your way to the other (or the middle and work your way to the edges). Don’t be afraid to use plenty of bandaids. If you leave any of the wound gaping, it will heal that way. Try to keep the bandages protected and dry so they keep the wound edges together for at least the first 3 days or so. The less you disturb the wound, the less it will scar, and the more likely it will heal the way you bandaged it.

If you’re using ‘closure tape’ or ‘steri-strips’, which you can order from medical supply stores:
(For those who have lots of crazy, ‘no-fear’ little boys, and want to plan ahead)

  • Paint a bit of Benzoin Tincture on either side of the wound without getting it in the wound – think ‘glue stick’. You can buy this at the ‘old school’ pharmacies in most areas – call around. It really helps the closure tape stay stuck for days instead of hours, but you can do without it in a pinch.
  • Ditto above: Apply the tape to one side and pull the wound closed as straight as possible and stick it to the other side. Continue until the entire wound is pulled together as straight as possible.

Good luck and if you’re curious to see how our picnic table adventure ended, see my next post on how to remove stitches.

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124 comments to Do You Really Need Stitches? Or will a Band-Aid do?

  • Hi Kai,
    Ouch. Shin injuries can throb.

    As for the flap of skin there are 2 likely results. Either it has enough blood supply that is still connected and it will heal fine, especially if you cleaned and laid it back down while the wound was still fresh and bleeding (once it has dried, it is less likely to reattach).

    The other possibility is that it doesn’t have enough working blood supply or doesn’t reattach well. In that case it will likely start to dry out and shrink on its own. It will slowly turn into what is more like a scab. Don’t pick it off, because underneath your body will be building new tissue to take it’s place.

    In either case, the only real difference, after all the healing is done, will be what the scar looks like and how big it is.

    Also remember, if it is reattaching, that attachment is very sensitive early on, which is what stitches are for = keeping everything held together nicely. So, try to disturb it as little as possible over the next 5 – 10 days and keep it dry then also. You can wrap some saran-wrap around it while showering.

    Finally, the only big risk you want to watch for is infection. Watch for spreading redness, puffiness, puss, heat and an increase in pain instead of it feeling better. In those cases, you would need to talk to a doctor for antibiotic treatment. To prevent infection, you can put some antibiotic ointment or cream on yourself, but limit that to the first couple of days after the injury. Too much or too long a use of antibiotic creams can irritate the skin.

    Good luck!
    – Misty

  • Kai

    Hey Misty,
    I just gashed my shin bone off of my truck door step as I slipped while getting in. The cut is right on the bone, a little smaller than a dime, but I am unsure how deep it is due to a flap of skin still covering the wound. I have cleaned it and medicated it. Will the flap heal the wound nicely while i take care of it or should I go get the flap removed and have them stitch it up, if they can stich the skin on the shin on a wider gash such as this!

    Thank Misty

  • Ouch! Sounds like your grandma knows what she’s talking about. The inner leg isn’t too bad of a place, because the skin shouldn’t get pulled on so much when you bend your knee. Stitches are good for wounds that will get popped open every time you move.

    So, a cut in that area — if you put some antibiotic on it and then use some strong bandages to hold it together, you could get away without stitches. Try to make sure you use enough bandaids to hold every part of the wound edges together. You could take a fabric bandaid and cut the sticky part into strips and then put them on every 2-3mm to hold the wound together all the way from one end to the other. Then leave them on until the wound has knit together well, about 5 – 10 days, depending on the wound and your healing.

    It is more likely to scar without stitches, especially since you said it is a few mm wide. The body will fill in any gaps with scar tissue naturally, but you may not mind, since it’s on the leg. Plus, make sure to watch for signs it is getting infected, like pus, heat, spreading redness, etc. If it’s worrisome you can always get your drs opinion, because it’s hard to say without seeing it. But a grandma has probably seen a few cuts in her time. 🙂

    Good luck and I hope that helps!

  • I cut my inner leg at the calf and shin on glass from a jaggedly broken toilet, the cut is a clean cut i’m worried because of getting stitches my grandma said it’s ok but im not sure on it. The cut is about 1 in. long and it stands open but its a few mm wide maybe what should i do? Could a big bandaid and antibiotic cream work or would stitches be the only way?????

  • A 1/4 in cut is pretty small. If you don’t mind a scar, can stop the bleeding, keep it from getting infected, and not pop it back open, you can usually avoid the dr.

    The only worrying thing about a cut near the knuckle is that it can get pulled open every time you bend that finger. If bending the finger will pull on the wound, that can be helped by using a finger splint while it heals. Also, cleaning it well, like you mentioned is good. A bit of antibiotic ointment the first 1 – 2 days is a good idea. The signs of infection to watch for are heat, swelling, pus, and a spreading redness. If you have problems with any of the above, or if it is worrying you check in with your dr.

  • Kriss

    I just cut the top of my index finger with a very sharp knife and it’s not too long maybe 1/4 inch and it’s close to the top knuckle and goes to my nail. It won’t stop bleeding and of course I had chicken in my hands that I was cutting. I’ve cleaned it really well with hibiclense soap. Should I go to the er for stitches or not?

  • Ouch. Sorry to hear that. To stop the bleeding, you need to keep pressure on it, and sometimes it will take 30 – 60 minutes of constant pressure to get it to stop. Just be careful of wrapping a bandage on a finger too tight and cutting of the circulation. If you can do it, it’s better to just push directly on the wound.

    If you don’t care about getting a scar, can get it to stop bleeding, and it isn’t too wide of a wound, you can probably get away without stitches. Also, if it’s been since last night, stitches are usually only done on fresh wounds that haven’t started to scab and dry.

    If you’re worried, can’t get the bleeding to stop, or start seeing signs of infection in a few days, make sure to check with your dr.

  • sasha

    i just cut my hand right below my nail and it realy hurts and starts bleeding whenever i take my bandaid off it is not that deep and it is in a cir le like shape should i get stiches

  • Ouch, Trav! The main problem is that this is over a joint that bends, which means every time you bend that finger, you risk popping the wound open again. Generally, you would have stitches done on a cut over a joint. However, if you have to make do without stitches, you could put some antibiotic ointment on it, use some strong bandage or steristrip-type adhesive strips to hold the wound tightly closed, and then use a finger brace, or even something like a popsicle stick taped to the finger to keep it from being able to bend. Your goal is to keep the wound edges together, undisturbed, and keep the finger immobile like that for a week to a week and a half before bending it. Also, you would need to keep a close eye on it for any kind of redness, swelling, or pus that means it is getting infected and you should definitely get in to see someone if that happens. (This is all just general info for you to consider, not medical advice. If you have any doubts or worries, check in with your Dr.) Good luck!

  • Trav

    Hey, so I just cut my knuckle open, and when I peel back the skin there’s a hole, and I can see tendon moving, the cuts about an inch long and only deep like that in one small spot, should I get stitches?

  • Sorry, I just saw this comment. Hopefully your hand is healing well. In general, keeping the wound clean and using a bit of antibiotic ointment at the beginning is a good practice. Also, make sure you know what the signs of infection are: spreading swelling, redness, pus – all of those getting worse instead of better. A good tool is to use a ballpoint pen and draw an outline around the redness around the wound. Then later, you can see if the redness is shrinking or expanding past the line you drew. If you’re worried at all, make sure to see your doctor as you may need oral antibiotics for infection. Indications of healing are tissue that is healthy, pink, no swelling/pus and feeling progressively better. Good luck, and remember I can only offer information. It’s best to get a medical opinion from someone who can see your injury and advise you better.

  • I cut my side of hand on glass window. Ira’s almost inch across not straight cut.I dud not get stitches,overlap is blue and I work in public. How do I treat this best way possible to keep infection away and to heal it correctly the scar isn’t issue. I am worried about infection really. Thank you.

  • I cut my hand on window and it’s almost inch across on Side of hand. It’s deep but I did not go to the hospital and my uncle glued it together. It’s blue on top of cut where skin is lapsed over. There is slight pain in it. What is the best way to take care of it along with correct bandage seeing that I work with public and want to make sure no infection gets in it…I have prescription bacitracin ointment. Thanks.

  • Ouch! Hope it heals quickly. 🙂

    – Misty

  • my dog was chasing after somone because she loves getting attention and she was running and i tripped on a metal little step as i was being drug inside the door of a hotel and tripped and fell on the ground and gashed the side of my knee it is kinda terrible i can still swim in the clorine though (^^^)

  • Hi Mikayla,

    Ouch – I hate glass on the floor. I just stepped on some myself in our basement.

    First, you should see if an adult can take a look at it, since I can’t actually see the cut and someone else can give you another opinion of what to do.

    Since you’re probably not worried about a scar on your foot, the main thing you want to make sure is that you can get the bleeding stopped and bandage it so the edges of the wound stay close together. The main problem with the foot is that you may pull open the wound every time you step on that foot, depending where the cut is. If that happens, you might need stitches to keep it together.

    Also, if the wound is really deep or there is any numbness, that should definitely be seen by a doctor.

    If those don’t apply and you decide to take care of it at home, clean the cut well by rinsing, apply something clean and hold pressure on it until it stops bleeding. Once the bleeding stops, use a good bandage – like the fabric ones or something called steri-strips to pull the edges of the cut back together. I’d also put a bit of antibiotic ointment on the wound. Then try to leave it alone as much as possible for up to a week while it heals together. Watch for swelling, redness, getting really hot, which would mean it might be infected and you should have a doctor look at it.

    I hope these ideas help you, and remember if there is anything about it that really worries you, make sure you have a doctor look at it.

    Good luck!


    Disclaimer (sorry, but for some, this is necessary) – All content of this website is for informational purposes only, and is not medical advice.

  • Hi misty,
    I’m 13 years old and I was walking through my kitchen and I stepped on a piece of broken glass. The cut is about 1in long and it cut through a couple layers of skin. Do I need stitches?

  • robin

    another good thing to do is skin glue i just sliced my finger almost to the bone a bit ago, used to treating all kinds of injuries clean and lavage wll then apply skin glue to wound push edges together apply ointment and splint if needed, you are good to go. dont do this if the wound is too big rule of thumb up to 1/2 long and 1/4 deep

  • Ouch – so sorry. Finger wounds are the worst because we use our hands so much. I hope you heal up fast!!

    P.S. If you can find some of the herb called comfrey – either as a powder mixed with some warm water, or in an ointment, it helps stimulate faster healing and less scarring.

  • Helen

    Thank you for replying Misty. I did end up getting stitches in two of my fingers.

  • Sorry Helen that I didn’t see this sooner. Hopefully your fingers are healing quickly.

    In the future, remember that the goal is to stop the bleeding and keep the wound stable so it doesn’t get popped open over and over. (also make sure you have no numbness which would be possible nerve damage and need to go right in to a doctor). With finger cuts you want to stop the bleeding, use a bandage to hold the edges of the wound shut, and then use a splint so you don’t keep bending the finger and opening the wound again. Something as simple as a few popsicle stick and medical tape can work.

    If you can’t get any of these to work – ie., won’t stop bleeding, can’t tape wound edges together, then you would need stitches.

    Hope that helps. 🙂


    Disclaimer (sorry, but for some, this is necessary) – All content of this website is for informational purposes only, and is not medical advice.

  • Helen

    Hi Misty,
    I am a 13 year old, and I just cut four of my fingers pretty deeply. I was Putting the recyclables out, and I accidentally grabbed the opened lid of a soup can. One of my fingers is slit about 1/4 of an inch into it. Should I get stitches?

  • If there is a scab, then that indicates that there was some damage to the skin, though obviously less than if the skin had split. You have much less chance of scarring if there is not visible breakage of the skin, but with a scab, there is the possibility. The best way to minimize scarring is to keep injuries moist while they heal – usually with a bandage or a barrier-type ointment not a cream. You want something that keeps the skin moist while it heals and prevents a dry scab from forming. An herbal ointment is ideal like the one I sell on my Turtlebalm site – or you can find something similar at a health food store. You can also make a simple one yourself by soaking herbs in olive oil, straining it, and then warming it and adding beeswax until it melts into it. Or something as simple as vaseline can also keep the wound moist. If you decide to use antibiotic ointment, make sure to only use it sparingly the first day or two of an injury as repeated and long-term use can be irritating to wounds. Hope that helps. Good luck. 🙂


    Disclaimer (sorry, but for some, this is necessary) – All content of this website is for informational purposes only, and is not medical advice.

  • Ginny

    Dear Misty

    My 2-year old hit his forehead on the corner of a wall and it left a red mark the other day. The skin was never actually broken, but it looks more like there was bleeding underneath the skin. Now there is a scab on it. Is it likely to cause a scar even though the skinwas never actually broken?

    Thank you!

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