I recently cut myself pretty deep on the inside of my palm, and even though the cut healed up relatively well and cleanly, I did notice some bruising around the wound channel as it healed. I realized how messed up my wound looked, mostly considering it was a pretty large and reasonably deep cut in the first place, so I figured it would be a good time to sit down and do some serious research on infections, necrosis, and bruising to be sure that nothing was wrong with my own cut. Here are my findings.
When you initially cut yourself, your body responds aggressively by flooding the area with platelets (the part of your blood that helps your blood to clot). These platelets then start doing the work of helping your blood clot up around the cut to form a protective barrier and to stop blood from continuing to flow out.
When your blood clots up, the clot itself is comprised of lots of different blood cells, as well as fibrin, which is a thread-like substance designed to hold the clot together. If your body is doing its job, a scab over your cut will be formed. The purpose of the scab is to protect the wound from harmful bacteria and the elements. Without the scab, your blood would be exposed to the world, and would essentially be a means by which any dangerous and harmful bacteria could enter your body and cause you to have an infection or get sick.
Generally scabs looks like a hard, brown crust, but with time, scabs naturally fall off revealing new skin and scar tissue. You’ll likely already know this considering it’s unlikely you have made it this far in life without having a scraped knee or little cut before.
Unfortunately, while that clotted layer of blood is supposed to protect your body against bad bacteria, sometimes things don’t play out so well, and your wound ends up getting infected. The infection can happen either because the object that cut you had harmful bacteria on it, or because before the wound was fully clotted to create the scab, environmental factors like some dirt got in the way and infected the blood with bad bacteria before it had a chance to be kept out.
This is why the first aid practice of spraying a wound with a disinfectant (alcohol works) and then covering a wound with a bandage is especially helpful. Spraying the wound with a disinfectant will kill off bad bacteria, and bandaging a wound covers it to prevent new bacteria from touching the cut or laceration until it’s had enough time to properly cut and scab over.
The first sign of an infection is redness and swelling around the wound channel. Also, while cuts and scrapes do hurt, if you have an infection you may also notice more more discomfort and/or pain around the wound than you would normally feel.
If an infection is left untreated, it can get progressively worse, causing major trauma around the wound and surrounding tissue. In time, with an untreated infection, your body will generate pus (a white or yellow liquid) at the site of the infection, and possibly even blistering as well, in cases of more extreme swelling and infection. If the infection gets bad enough you might even see red lines running from the wound towards your heart – the sign of a condition called septicemia. Letting things get to this point is incredibly dangerous, and can kill you. If you are here because you Googled “How to tell if your cut is getting infected,” and you have these symptoms: call 911 (or whatever the equivalent is in your country). Do it immediately.
Septicemia occurs when the infection that has contaminated your blood starts to poison it. While this condition is pretty much one of the worst things that can happen from a cut, it’s not the only life-threatening condition that can occur from an infected wound. Toxic shock, staph infections, and gangrene are all also possible outcomes of a cut infection gone terribly bad. So make sure you take care of your wounds! And certainly do not ignore pain or serious discomfort of a laceration – get that thing checked out if you’re even remotely near concerned. Infection is no joke and a visit to the hospital to check to make sure everything’s okay really could save your life.
To make this lesson on cuts, wounds, and infections exponentially clear, I’ll break things down into some nice bullet points:
What to Do If You Cut Yourself
- Let’s say it’s a pretty big cut – not just some small paper cut. Probably happened because you were playing with your Kershaw Cryo instead of taking the garbage out like the Mrs. asked you to do 20 minutes ago.
- You start bleeding. At this point, immediately irrigate (wash) the wound with soap and water (yes, you need soap and not just water – remember you need to make sure none of that bad bacteria gets to your blood).
- If you see dirt or debris in the wound remove it using tweezers cleaned with alcohol.
- Locate an antibiotic (like Neosporin or Polysporin), and apply it as a thin layer. For some people this causes a rash – if that happens, obviously stop.
- Figure out whether to use stitches, bandages, or super glue. Get stitches for really deep wounds. Butterfly tape or adhesive strips are fine for minor cuts, but for serious ones I strongly recommend going old school with surgical thread. For small cuts I use superglue, as it’s effective and safe. And bandages are also an option for small cuts if you’ve got no super glue on you.
- Change dressing regularly and watch for signs of infection.
- Keep in mind, if you haven’t had a tetanus shot in the past 5 years you may need a booster shot.
Looking for Signs of an Infection
- Swelling or redness around the wound.
- Warmth around the affected area.
- Increased pain beyond what can realistically be expected from a wound of that type.
- Drainage of pus.
Signs You Need a Hospital Now
- Red lines leading away from the wound towards your heart.
- Necrosis of the flesh. This means that the flesh around the wound has died. Look out for black tissue and a funky smell.
- Sudden fever coupled with aches, diarrhea, nausea, rash, and vomiting. These could be the symptoms of toxic shock.
Don’t take chances with your health. While in most cases the body will do a good job of keeping out bacteria simply by flooding the area of the cut with platelets that will then clot up your blood and create a scab, in some cases, the body can’t prevent a problem from occurring. If the object that cut you in the first place had some bad bacteria, or if some dirt or grime got onto your cut after you began bleeding and had some of that bad bacteria, your cut will get infected. And an infection isn’t always something you can just leave to your immune system and sleep off.
So do yourself a favor. Make sure to take preventive measures before the cut gets infected if you possibly can (spray disinfectant/alcohol on it, bandage it up – keep that thing clean!), and be absolutely sure if you notice any signs of infection, to get that cut checked out straight away! Your life could actually depend on it.
More First Aid Resources
When it comes to first aid, you need two important things to help you on your quest to keep yourself and those around you safe & healthy: knowledge and (to a lesser extent) supplies. To tackle the prior, take a look through our list of the top 22 emergency & survival first aid books and grab those that you think will best help you gain the knowledge you’ll need. For the latter, take a look at our Ultimate First Aid Supplies List to see if there’s anything you should be adding to your at-home first aid supplies stockpile, or if there’s something you’ve forgotten to add to one of your first aid kits.
Do you know what the maximum recommended doses of common painkillers are, whether to use Advil, Tylenol, or Aspirin, and how to quickly assess and address emergency situations? Did you know you can superglue cuts and that Imodium is an excellent tool for survival?
If you have some time, you can also quickly browse through short descriptions of all the first aid articles we have on this blog, to see if there’s anything valuable you’ve yet to learn on the topics we’ve written about.