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Patient education: Stitches and staples (The Basics)
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Patient education: Stitches and staples (The Basics)
Written by the doctors and editors at UpToDate
All topics are updated as new evidence becomes available and our peer review process is complete.
Literature review current through: Nov 2017. | This topic last updated: Mar 01, 2017.

What are stitches? — Stitches are a way doctors can close certain types of cuts. A doctor uses a special needle and thread to put in stitches. He or she sews the edges of the cut together and ties knots to hold the stitches in place (figure 1). The term doctors use for stitches is "sutures."

There are 2 main types of stitches:

Absorbable – These stitches dissolve over time. They do not need to be taken out.

Nonabsorbable – These stitches need to be taken out after a certain amount of time. They do not dissolve.

What are staples? — Another way doctors can close cuts is with staples. Staples that go in the body are different from those used on paper. To put staples in, doctors use a special stapler (figure 2). Staples need to be taken out after a certain amount of time, just like nonabsorbable stitches.

How do I know if I need stitches or staples? — You will need stitches or staples if your cut is wide, jagged, or goes all the way through your skin. A cut will heal on its own without stitches or staples, but they help a cut heal faster and leave less of a scar.

Minor cuts and scrapes that do not go all the way through the skin do not need stitches. If you get a cut and don't know if you need stitches, check with your doctor or nurse.

What happens when I get stitches or staples? — Before the doctor stitches or staples your cut, he or she will clean out the cut well. He or she will also give you numbing medicine so that you don't feel pain when the stitches or staples go in.

After the doctor stitches or staples your cut, he or she will cover the area with gauze or a bandage.

Why is it important to take care of my stitches or staples? — It's important to take care of your stitches or staples so that your cut heals well and doesn't get infected.

How do I take care of my stitches or staples? — Your doctor or nurse will give you specific instructions, depending on the type of stitches you have and where they are. Staples need the same type of care as nonabsorbable stitches.

Here is some general advice you can follow:

Keep your stitches or staples dry and covered with a bandage. Nonabsorbable stitches and staples need to be kept dry for 1 to 2 days. Absorbable stitches need to be kept dry longer. Your doctor or nurse will tell you exactly how long to keep your stitches dry.

Once you no longer need to keep your stitches or staples dry, gently wash them with soap and water whenever you take a shower. Do not put your stitches or staples underwater, such as in a bath, pool, or lake. Getting them too wet can slow down healing and raise your chance of getting an infection.

After you wash your stitches or staples, pat them dry and put an antibiotic ointment on them.

Cover your stitches or staples with a bandage or gauze, unless your doctor or nurse tells you not to.

Avoid activities or sports that could hurt the area of your stitches or staples for 1 to 2 weeks. (Your doctor or nurse will tell you exactly how long to avoid these activities.) If you hurt the same part of your body again, stitches can break, and the cut can open up again.

When should I call the doctor or nurse? — Call your doctor or nurse if:

Your stitches break or the cut opens up again.

You get a fever.

You have redness or swelling around the cut, or pus drains from the cut. It is normal for clear yellow fluid to drain from the cut in the first few days.

When will my stitches or staples be taken out? — The doctor who puts in the stitches or staples will tell you when to see your doctor or nurse to have them taken out. Nonabsorbable stitches usually stay in for 5 to 14 days, depending on where they are. Staples usually stay in for 7 to 14 days because they are placed on parts of the body like the scalp, arms, or legs.

Staples need to be taken out with a special staple remover. But doctors' offices don't always have this device. Ask the doctor who puts in your staples for a staple remover. Then bring it to your doctor's office when you have your staples taken out.

What should I do after my stitches or staples are out? — After your stitches or staples are out, you should protect the scar from the sun. Use sunscreen on the area or wear clothes or a hat that covers the scar.

Your doctor or nurse might also recommend that you use certain lotions or creams to help your scar heal.

More on this topic

Patient education: Taking care of cuts and scrapes (The Basics)
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