Usually referring to a little sliver of wood, a splinter is a small, sharp piece of debris — could also be glass, a thorn, or a cactus spine — that lodges itself in your skin. Usually, it’s not a big deal.
Most times, when you get a splinter you’ll know right away. Whether you picked up a piece of wood, walked barefoot across a wooden deck or accidentally walked through an area where someone broke a glass, that sudden sting of a splinter is recognizable, sudden, and painful. There may even be some redness or swelling. Sometimes you won’t know you have a splinter until you put pressure on it. If it doesn’t hurt, you can leave it — often the body will push it out on its own, either through normal shedding of the skin or by forming a small pimple on top.
Can a splinter kill me?
According to HowStuffWorks, what makes splinters dangerous is their size, the location and what they are made of. While wood splinters may contain chemicals that could cause inflammation, plant thorns could have toxins that can cause infection. Bacteria is another concern — tetanus happens when Clostridium tetani (found in animal feces and dirt) gets into the body, creating a toxin that affects the nervous system, potentially causing respiratory failure or cardiac arrest. Note: This is a good reason to keep up-to-date on your tetanus vaccine.
Fortunately, death by splinter is rare, and most cause very few problems.
How to safely remove a splinter
Luckily, splinters can usually be removed safely and easily at home.
According to American Academy of Dermatology Association, these are the steps to take to properly remove a splinter:
Wash and dry the area. Make sure you (and anyone helping) wash your hands before starting to try to avoid potential infection. It is also important to gently wash the affected area with soap and warm water.
Sterilize the tweezers and needle. A good pair of tweezers and a needle will be your tools of choice for this job. Sterilize the ends of each by placing them in some boiling water, or soaking in rubbing alcohol. Dry them off before using.
Remove the splinter. You might not need the needle if the splinter is large enough and sticking out of the skin still. If you are able, grab the end of the splinter firmly with the tweezers and pull it out the same way it went in. Make sure not to squeeze out the splinter by squeezing the skin around it as this can cause the splinter to break into smaller pieces making it harder to remove.
If the entire splinter is embedded in the skin, you may need to use the needle. Gently pierce the skin near one end of the splinter and carefully push the it with the needle until one end is sticking out of the skin. You can then use the tweezers to remove it. This process might be easier with help of a family member or friend, particularly if the splinter is in a hard-to-reach spot.
Another effective method when a splinter is embedded involves scraping the surface of the skin away with the needle until you expose the top of the splinter. Remove it with the tweezers once you have exposed a large enough part of the splinter to grab.
For either of these removal methods, consider using a magnifying glass if you have one to get a better look at the splinter as they can often seem almost too small to grab with the tweezers.
Clean the area. Make sure to clean the area where the splinter was with soap and water after removing the splinter. It is also worth spreading a little bit of petroleum jelly on the area and covering it with a bandage until it heals.
When to get medical attention for a splinter
While you should be able to remove most splinters using the steps above, professional medical attention may be needed in some cases. If the splinter is too deep and painful and won’t come out, you can get it removed by a professional to avoid infection.
If the splinter has been left for too long or wasn’t removed properly and is starting to become infected, or there is a lot of blood involved with the removal, or you (or your child) don’t have up-to-date vaccines, you may also want to visit a doctor.
How to prevent a splinter
There are plenty of ways one can get a splinter, including the unsanded wood of a picnic table, deck or dock, walking barefoot in an area of broken glass and coming into contact with thorny bushes and plants. Wearing shoes and protective clothing when outside, or in areas where shards of broken glass could be, are good preventive measures.