Minor Injury: Treat at Home or Call the Doc?

When Should You Seek Professional Help?

Mother cleaning child's wound
Tang Ming Tung/Getty Images

What's minor to some may not be so minor to others. Depending on one's skill level and confidence level (often related), an injury could be worthy of a trip to the ER or less than an adhesive bandage. What others might find overwhelming may be much ado about nothing to you—or the other way around.

Here's a list of common injuries often described as minor in order to help you decide how to handle them, though any of these could also be major calamities. Follow the links to see how to handle each minor emergency. If you do need to seek help, make sure you get the level that you really need. In some cases, it's better to call 911 than trying to drive yourself to the ER.

Plus, there are many situations in which you shouldn't bother going to the doctor's office at all and should just reach for the phone to call 911.

Regardless of this list, your best judge is your gut. If you think your injury needs a professional's opinion, by all means call the doctor or go to the ER. If you think it's a matter of life and death, don't ever hesitate to call 911. If you're not sure either way, read on, but always remember when it comes to medical emergencies: If in doubt, call 'em out.

How Bad Is That Burn?

2nd Degree Burn
Second degree burn from a curling iron.. (c) Kathryn Harper

Whether it's from a barbecue, an oven, the sun or a curling iron like this, everybody gets burned at some point. By far, most burns don't need to be treated at a burn center or get skin grafts, but they can certainly get that bad. Burn severity is based on how much skin is damaged. The measurement is done by the depth of the burn combined with the surface area affected. It's a complicated assessment process to determine whether burns are critical or not. It can be simpler to decide whether a burn needs to be seen by a professional at all.

Most small first-degree burns, and sometimes even second-degree burns like the one pictured here, don't need a healthcare provider. On the other hand, any burn that appears very deep should be professionally evaluated. Some burns require immediate attention and you should call 911 immediately:

  • Burns to the face
  • Burns that circle all the way around the hands or feet
  • Burns to the genitals
  • Second-degree burns covering an area larger than one whole arm or about the size of the back

Bruised More Than Your Ego?

Wrist bruises
Discoloration is the hallmark of a bruise.. (c) Sapphira Pixler

Bruises range from minor inconveniences to severely incapacitating. Discoloration is the most noticable aspect, but that's only part of a bruise. They also cause swelling and might lead to a loss of function in severe enough cases.

The trick to avoiding bruises (besides avoiding injury in the first place) is to treat any injury with RICE as soon as you get hurt. Most bruises can be treated at home without calling the doctor.

Cuts, Scrapes, and Scratches

finger cut
The quintessential minor injury.. Melanie Martinez

Small cuts and scratches can be handled by rinsing with tap water, applying an antibiotic ointment (optional), and applying an adhesive bandage.

More severe lacerations need to be evaluated for the possibility of needing stitches. Depending on how bad it is, you may want to see a healthcare provider. Most cuts can be handled at an urgent care center, and unless it's bleeding severely, you don't need to call 911 for a cut.

Black Eyes

Ben Kay with a black eye
Ben Kay with a black eye after getting hit in a soccer match. David Rogers/Getty Images

Black eyes are the bane of all little league ball players. Who hasn't gotten a ball to the eye?

Most black eyes are easily treated at home—as long as the injury is just to the area around the eye and there is no bleeding or direct injury to the eyeball. If you see any of the following, call 911 immediately:

  • bleeding from the eyeball
  • loss of consciousness
  • two black eyes (especially if the injury was to a part of the head other than the face)
  • confusion
  • loss of vision or blurred vision
  • vertigo (dizziness)

Removing Splinters: Minor Surgery for a Minor Injury

Removing a splinter
Mom's must know how to remove a splinter.. Glass and Mirror

Splinters are probably the most annoying of minor injuries. In most cases, a splinter can be easily removed at home. The most important thing to remember about splinter removal is to keep it clean. Always wash your hands before trying to remove a splinter. Always wash the area around the splinter. And, always make sure you are using clean tools (tweezers and a needle).

If a splinter is left alone, it will usually work its way out of the skin. I know I have a hard time leaving splinters alone, though, and let's face it: wherever the splinter is stuck will be the area of your body that you hit most often for the next two weeks. The most common complication of splinters is infection. Watch for redness, heat, oozing and swelling. If you see signs of infection on any injury where the skin is broken, it's time to see a doctor.

Subungual splinters (splinters under a fingernail or toenail) may need a healthcare provider to remove them. Not to mention they hurt like crazy.


Blister on foot
Blister on the heel.. Kristin Kokkersvold

Friction blisters—the kind you get from long walks in bad shoes—are easily treated at home. There are three steps: clean it, drain it, and dress it.

The most important thing to remember about blisters is to fix the problem that caused the blister when you fix the blister. Otherwise, you will make things worse.


Sprained Ankle
Left ankle swollen from a sprain.. Cuttlefish

Any joint can be sprained, but ankles are by far the most common. It isn't necessary to see a doctor to treat every sprain, but sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference between a sprain and a fracture.

Ultimately, there should be improvement in a couple of days in the case of a sprain. It won't be healed, but it should start feeling a little better fairly quickly. If it's not, then it might be worth calling the doctor for a professional opinion.

Some sprains can be serious and often those are indistinguishable from dislocations or fractures and should be treated like broken bones.

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