Last week I cut myself while kitesurfing. I went to the doctor and got four stitches. I don't want to waste a trip into town, so I'd like to know when stitches should come out, and whether it's fine for me to take them out myself. - Terry
It's all about location. On a face, where the cosmetic result is most important, three to five days is the right amount of time for stitches to remain in. Longer than that and they leave a more noticeable scar, so doctors remove the stitches early and then apply skin tapes to add a bit more strength.
Blood flow is less robust in the extremities, and wounds take longer to heal. So on a leg, we may use thick stitches that stay in for 14 days, especially over a joint that is stretched repeatedly. Hand stitches are somewhere in between, let's say a week.
Removing stitches too soon can allow the healing wound to rip open. This isn't a tragedy, but does mean that healing is delayed by weeks, and the resulting scar will be larger and weaker. Keep in mind that the average sutured wound will take 1-2 months to regain just half its original strength. It's not something that can be rushed.
And though removing stitches is technically simple, understanding what can go wrong with wounds is the real reason to have a doctor or nurse do it.
The most common mistake people make is leaving stitches in too long, which creates railroad-track scars. Occasionally, someone not knowing any better will cut the knot clean off, leaving the stitch buried in their skin, making it prone to infection and hard to remove.
The proper technique is to cut the stitch to only one side of the knot, near the skin, and then pull the stitch through in one piece.
Though stitch removal is usually easy and almost painless if done right, it requires a little bit of judgment and experience. And even when done by a professional it carries a slight risk of infection. So, if it's not looking right, have your GP take a squiz.