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Cuts, Scrapes, and Scratches

What is a cut, scrape, or scratch?

Cuts, or lacerations, are openings into or through the skin. Cuts may just go through the skin or they may go into the deeper fatty or muscle tissues. Scrapes and scratches are areas of damage to the upper layers of skin. They may go into the deeper layers of skin and they may bleed, but they don't gape open to expose the fatty tissue beneath the skin.

How does it occur?

Cuts can occur from a variety of things. Most often they are caused by something sharp like glass or sharp metal that slices into your skin. Sometimes things that are not sharp can hit your skin with such force that the skin tears. Scrapes and scratches occur when something harder than your skin comes into contact with it: for example, when you fall onto the sidewalk or when a nail or pet scratches you.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms are:

  • pain
  • redness
  • sometimes bleeding.

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about what happened and examine you.

How is it treated?

The treatment of a cut depends on the depth of the cut. Shallow cuts that go just into the upper skin can be treated at home just as you would a scrape or scratch (see below). Deeper cuts may need to be closed with skin glue, stitches, or staples. There are no hard and fast rules about this because the treatment depends in part on where the cut is. For example, you may want a cut on your face to be closed to lessen scarring. If it were on your foot you might not care so much about scarring. It also depends on how long and deep the cut is and how it happened. For example, very dirty wounds like animal bites are generally not closed because they are more likely to get infected.

When you have a scrape, scratch, or minor cut:

  • Keep the wound and the area around it clean and dry.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water for at least 15 seconds before you touch the area.
  • Clean the wound as completely as possible with mild soap and warm water. Remove any bits of dirt, small pieces of rock, or other debris.
  • Put an antibiotic ointment on the wound and cover it with a bandage.
  • Clean the wound with warm water and mild soap 2 times every day. Pat it dry with a clean towel. When you are cleaning the wound, look for signs of infection such as increased swelling, redness, red streaks going away from the wound towards your heart, or any drainage.
  • Change the bandage daily, keeping the wound covered until it heals. If your bandage becomes wet or dirty, put a clean one on as soon as you can. If the bandage sticks when you try to take it off, use a washcloth soaked in warm water to help loosen the bandage edges.
  • If the wound is dirty or involved rusty metal and it has been more than 5 years since your last tetanus booster shot, or if you do not know when your last booster was, get another shot within 3 days of getting hurt. Try to get the shot the same day as the injury if possible. If it is not possible to get the shot within 3 days of the injury, get it as soon as you can.
  • Take acetaminophen or ibuprofen for the pain. Don't take aspirin if your cut, scratch, or scrape is bleeding a lot. Check with your healthcare provider before you give any medicine that contains aspirin or salicylates to a child or teen. This includes medicines like baby aspirin, some cold medicines, and Pepto Bismol. Children and teens who take aspirin are at risk for a serious illness called Reye's syndrome.

Call or see your healthcare provider if:

  • Bleeding continues after 10 minutes of direct pressure, or comes in spurts.
  • A cut is gaping, deep, or jagged.
  • A cut is a half inch or longer.
  • A cut is over a joint.
  • A wound cannot be cleaned, is very dirty, or has a foreign body embedded.
  • You have a cut on your face.
  • You think you might have damaged a nerve or tendon.
  • You might have been exposed to rabies.
  • You have an abrasion that covers a large area.
  • After the injury you can't move the part that was hurt or you have lost feeling in the area of the injury.
  • Your tetanus shots are not up to date.
  • You have a puncture wound.
  • You have a cut on your hand and are worried that you might lose the ability to use that part of your hand.

How long will the effects last?

If you have a cut that was glued shut, you can just wait for the glue to wear away. See the instructions that were given to you about wound care after gluing. If your wound was stitched shut and the stitches do not dissolve on their own, you will need to have them taken out. (If you can see the stitches going through your skin, they are not the kind that dissolves.) Your healthcare provider will tell you how to care for the sutured wound and when you need to return to the office for removal of the stitches or staples. Depending on where a cut is, it will take about 5 to 14 days to heal and then your provider will remove the stitches or staples.

Your scrape or scratch will probably heal in a week or so, depending on how large it is (the larger it is, the longer it takes). If you have other medical problems, it may take longer to heal. If your wound hasn't healed after 2 weeks, call your healthcare provider.

Call your healthcare provider right away if:

  • You start to have any signs or symptoms of infection. These include:
    • Your skin is redder or more painful.
    • You have red streaks from the wound going toward your heart.
    • The wound area is very warm to touch.
    • You have pus or other fluid coming from the wound area.
    • You have a fever higher than 101.5° F (38.6° C).
    • You have chills, nausea, vomiting, or muscle aches.
  • The wound seems to be opening up or you notice any drainage.
  • The wound bleeds for more than 10 minutes.
  • The stitches or staples are loose.
  • The adhesive film is loosening before it is supposed to.
  • You have any symptoms that worry you.

If you have any question about whether a wound needs to be treated, get it checked by your provider.

Disclaimer: This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information provided is intended to be informative and educational and is not a replacement for professional medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.

HIA File inju4934.htm Release 13/2010

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