Whether it is a fall, slip of a knife or a paper cut, we all occasionally injure ourselves to a point that leads to bleeding. In most instances these minor cuts (lacerations)are not serious. Bleeding can be stopped quickly. Infections do not tend to set in with proper wound care. Apart from the pain that lasts for a few hours to days, we are able to move on with life relatively unaffected.
However, there instances where we may sustain deeper cuts. It causes intense pain and severe bleeding which may not stop as quickly as we have come to expect of such injuries. Knowing how to stop bleeding, specifically surface bleeding, is important for obvious reasons. The loss of blood can impair health and in large quantities even lead to death. Medical attention may not always be immediately available but simple solutions can still be effective.
Read more on blood loss.
Why do we bleed?
It is important to understand why and how we bleed in order to understand how simple measures can stop it. Firstly, blood is made up on many different substances. These constituents can be simply divided into the fluid part (plasma) and the solid part (formed elements – blood cells and proteins). Blood is constantly flowing throughout the body within the blood vessels (arteries, veins and capillaries).
When these vessels are broken in some way, the blood can then seep out of it. A break in the surface blood vessels leads to bleeding into the environment where we can see it easily. However, this also depends on there being a break in the skin. If the skin is intact, the blood pools underneath it (hematoma). With a break in the deeper blood vessels, the bleeding is internal and not visible but nevertheless serious, if not more so at times.
Read more on excessive bleeding.
How the body stops bleeding?
The body has mechanisms to stop bleeding. The main mechanism is to plug up the break. Chemicals that normally circulate in the blood in an inactive state are activated. These chemicals are known as clotting factors. It triggers the formation of a plug (blood clot) that is made up of blood cells and other components to immediately stop the bleed. Healing is also stimulated to close the break in the blood vessel in a more permanent way.
Other mechanisms also play a role in preventing massive blood loss and assisting with halting the bleeding. The most relevant other mechanism is narrowing of the broken blood vessel (vasoconstriction). It helps to reduce blood flow and minimize blood loss through the compromised vessel. Therefore any simple measures to stop bleeding should focus on helping with blood clot formation and reducing blood flow through the damaged blood vessel.
Apply Pressure on the Area
Applying direct pressure to the area with a clean cloth or tissue should be commenced immediately. This helps with reducing blood flow and hastening clot formation. Usually direct pressure is sufficient to stop bleeding within a few seconds to minutes for most minor cuts. However, with larger cuts and more severe bleeding it may be necessary to apply pressure for longer and continue with the other measures mentioned below.
WARNING: If the bleeding is not stopping at least slowing down after applying pressure for 15 minutes, seek immediate medical attention. Continue applying pressure while doing so.
Elevate the Affected Part
While a small cut on the finger may not require additional measures beyond direct pressure, it is worth knowing how to stop more severe bleeding. Immediately lay down on a flat surface and elevate the area which is bleeding. This must be done while direct pressure is being applied. The blood flow to the affected area will be slowed down by elevation due to the action of gravity.
Remove Objects in the Wound
If there is any object in the wound, like glass shards, it should be removed even before applying direct pressure. By not removing it there is a risk of causing deeper injuries when pressure is applied. This can worsen the bleeding. However, there are instances where the offending object cannot be removed and direct pressure can still be applied while medical attention is sought. With large impaled objects, beware of removing it as bleeding may worsen afterwards.
Bandage the Area
Bandaging the area helps with stopping bleeding and pressure can still be applied over the bandage. Ensure that the bandage is clean or that a clean cloth or gauze is applied on the wound and a bandage then dressed over it. Apply it firmly. In cases of severe bleeding, a tourniquet can be applied proximal to the bleed (closer to the torso / before the site of the bleed).This is a short term measure to slow blood flow to the area and immediate medical attention is necessary.
Use an Ice Pack
After tying a bandage to the area, the blood flow to the area can be further slown down with a cold application. An ice back may be useful in this regard. Cold causes the blood vessels to constrict (narrow). However, ice should never be applied directly to the skin and especially not to the wound. Rather place the ice in a cloth or plastic bag if a proper ice pack is not available. Never use frozen meat or any other food as microbes from these items can enter the wound.
Avoid Alcohol and Aspirin
Never consume alcohol when a bleed occurs. Alcohol increases vasodilation (widening) especially of the superficial blood vessels which can hasten blood loss. Similarly, avoid anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin to alleviate pain. Aspirin and several other drugs can prevent blood clotting thereby leading to persistent bleeding. People who use blood thinners on a regular basis need to beware of bleeds as clotting is significantly delayed.
Stay Calm and Rest
Try to stay calm as any agitation can increase the heart rate and blood pressure which may increase blood flow to teh area. This leads to greater blood loss. As mentioned above, avoid alcohol to calm the nerves due to the associated risks. Do not move around unnecessarily. Movement can also increase blood loss from the affected site, especially if it involves the lower limbs (thighs, legs or feet). Rather sit down or lie flat and do not stop applying direct pressure. Ask for assistance rather than moving around for bandages, ice packs and so on.
Inform Medical Services
It is important to call emergency medical services for major wounds, with rapid blood loss and persistent bleeding. Where possible, rush to an emergency room. It is important to ensure that all medical professionals are notified of any underlying health problems (particularly bleeding disorders), drug and alcohol usage (including prescription medication) and allergies (especially to drugs).