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Cuts and Scratches

What are cuts and scratches?

Cuts and scratches are areas of damage on the surface of the skin. A cut is a line of damage that can go through the skin and into the muscle tissues below, whereas a scratch is surface damage that does not penetrate the lower tissues.

Cuts and scratches may bleed or turn red, become infected, and leave scars.

What are the symptoms of cuts and scratches?

The symptoms of cuts and scratches include:

  • bleeding
  • redness or swelling around the wound
  • pain or irritation at the skin surface

What are risk factors for cuts and scratches?

Cuts and scratches can happen to anyone. People are more likely to get cuts if they are in a combative situation or if they handle sharp objects. Scratches are usually accidental.

Children are more susceptible to cuts and scratches than adults, because they are more active and have less control over their growing bodies.

What causes cuts and scratches?

A cut is usually the result of an encounter with a sharp object, such as a knife or razor blade. Objects with thin edges, like a piece of paper or a thin cardboard box, can also create cuts if not handled carefully.

A scratch may be caused by an encounter with an abrasive surface, such as sandpaper, unfinished wood, or concrete. Wounds inflicted by animals, such as those caused by cats’ claws, are often classified as scratches.

How are cuts and scratches diagnosed?

A cut or scratch can usually be diagnosed through visual inspection. Some small cuts, like paper cuts, require sharp eyes or magnifying glasses to see.

How are cuts and scratches treated?

There are several ways to treat cuts and scratches, depending on their severity. If the skin is kept clean, many cuts and scratches heal on their own. To accelerate that healing process, patients can choose from the following methods:


Over-the-counter and prescription medications are available for wound care: antibiotic ointment can prevent infection of a cut or scratch; pain relievers may reduce irritation and control inflammation around the wound; and some topical creams may be prescribed to prevent swelling.


If a cut results in a large, open wound, it may require stitches in order to heal. If the cut becomes infected beyond repair, the area of infection may have to be removed.

Home care

Applying pressure to the cut or scratch can stop the bleeding. Covering the wound with a bandage will keep it clean and allow for direct application of antibiotic ointment. The bandage will also absorb any blood that remains as the wound heals. Before the bandage is applied, the wound should be cleaned with water, ethyl alcohol, or hydrogen peroxide.

Alternative therapies

A tetanus booster shot is sometimes recommended after a cut.

What is the outlook for cuts and scratches?

Most cuts and scratches go away over time, but some lead to scars and infections. If a wound becomes infected, it must be treated in order to avoid serious damage. A severely infected wound may require amputation. In rare cases, an infected wound can be fatal.

Preventing cuts and scratches

To prevent cuts and scratches, avoid dangerous activities and interactions with sharp or coarse surfaces. Wear clothing to protect your arms, legs, and core, and be aware of your environment. If you do get a cut or scratch, clean and treat it immediately to prevent infection.


Cuts and scratches are a part of everyday life, especially for children. Usually, minor cuts heal on their own as long as you clean them well and treat them immediately. Serious cuts often require medical attention from your doctor or the emergency room. To prevent cuts and scratches, avoid dangerous activities, and wear sufficient clothing to protect yourself. If you or your child does get a cut or scratch, be sure to clean it and treat it quickly to prevent infection.

Content licensed from:

Written by: Heaven Stubblefield
Medically reviewed on: Jul 19, 2016: Deborah Weatherspoon, PhD, RN, CRNA, COI

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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