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Superficial cuts

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read

Most minor cuts can be managed at home and should heal within three to five days. A superficial cut, or surface laceration, breaks the topmost layer of skin but doesn’t go deep enough to reach the fat or muscle layer underneath. 

Doctor’s advice

Causes and characteristics of superficial cuts

Causes of Superficial Cuts

  • Daily Activities: Everyday tasks, such as cooking, chopping vegetables, or handling tools, can lead to accidental cuts.
  • Paper Cuts: Handling paper, cardboard, or other sharp-edged materials can result in small but painful cuts.
  • Minor Abrasions: Scrapes against rough surfaces or contact with minor irritants can cause superficial cuts.

Characteristics of Superficial Cuts

  • Shallow Depth: Superficial cuts typically do not penetrate beyond the epidermis.
  • Minimal Bleeding: While there may be some bleeding, it is usually minimal and can be easily controlled.
  • Pain and Tenderness: Superficial cuts may be accompanied by pain and tenderness in the affected area.

Healthwords pharmacists' top tips

You should stop any bleeding by applying pressure for 10 minutes on the cut with a clean towel or sterile gauze. This allows the blood time to clot.

Once the bleeding has stopped, wash your hands, clean the cut under cool running water, and gently pat dry with a clean towel or gauze. Put a bandaid or sterile dressing over the wound and change this if it gets dirty or wet. Leave on for the next three to five days to allow recovery and protect from any dirt or infection getting in.

Once healed, be careful lifting off any bandaid or dressing so as not to disturb the scab. This is a key part of healing and will protect your body from infection, so allow the scab to dry out.

When to seek medical attention

While most superficial cuts can be treated at home, there are instances where medical attention is warranted:

  • Deep Cuts. If a cut is deep, extending beyond the epidermis, or if there is difficulty controlling bleeding, seek medical help.
  • Signs of Infection. Watch for signs of infection, including increased redness, swelling, warmth, or the presence of pus.
  • Tetanus Risk. If the cut is caused by a dirty or rusty object, ensure your tetanus vaccinations are up to date or seek medical advice.

When should I see my doctor?

You should not usually need to see your doctor for a cut, but there are key signs that this could be more serious than a superficial cut. You should seek medical attention via an urgent visit with your doctor, attending an urgent care center, or by calling 911 if:

  • the wound is bigger than 2 inches
  • there is debris stuck in the wound – don’t try and remove this yourself
  • you are unable to stop the bleeding
  • you either have a health condition, such as a clotting disorder that makes it difficult for your body to stop bleeding, or you are on medications such as warfarin
  • it is a bite wound – from an animal or human
  • it is a cut to the face
  • your wound is at risk of infection (if the conditions of your injury meant the wound might be dirty)
  • if you think it is infected – if the area around the wound looks red or hot, you feel unwell, have a temperature, or there is yellow pus coming from the wound

The doctor will ask about your medical history and any medications, examine the cut, and clean and dress the wound if needed. They may prescribe antibiotics if your wound is infected or at risk of infection. The doctor may also put stitches in the wound if it is bigger than 2 inches if they feel it is needed.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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