Ouch! If you’re working outdoors or in the kitchen, at some point in your lifetime you’ll encounter a splinter. Whether a sharp sliver of wood, a glass shard or other debris, splinters can be a real nuisance.
You may be tempted to ignore a splinter, especially if it doesn’t hurt. But a foreign object embedded in your skin can put you at risk for an infection—and no one should ever want that.
“Our skin is our natural barrier against the outside world. So when the skin is broken by a cut or puncture, that barrier is broken, and bacteria can then enter the body,” said Daniel Bates, MD, a physician lead at Banner Urgent Care. “If your body’s immune system can’t destroy them fast enough, the bacteria will start feeding off your body’s nutrients, growing, multiplying and damaging surrounding tissue. That’s why it’s important to clean out wounds to remove as much contaminating bacteria as possible.”
The more you can remove, the less there is for your immune system to clean up, and the better chances you have to prevent an infection.
While many incidents of splinters turn out to be no big deal and can be safely removed at home with a good pair of tweezers, there are cases where you’ll need to see a health care specialist. Dr. Bates shared what tools you’ll need and the steps to take to safely remove a splinter at home, and when you should leave it to the experts.
The first-aid supplies you’ll need to safely remove a splinter
- Soap and water. The best thing you can do to prevent infection in any wound is to wash it out with clean running water. You can use tap water or bottled water but avoid disinfectants like alcohol, iodine and hydrogen peroxide. “This actually kills the healthy tissue in your wound and can increase (not decrease) your risk of infection,” Dr. Bates said.
- Gauze, clean tissues, paper towel or cloth. You can use these to dry up the wound, apply pressure and clean up any bleeding.
- A good pair of tweezers. Tweezers have many uses, from self-care to pulling pesky splinters. A “good” pair will have a fine tapered point and the jaws should close evenly so you can grab fine objects like splinters and hairs.
- A fine sewing needle. This should have a thin enough point to stab into the side of a splinter and not simply push it around. It should also be long enough that you can get a good grip and have control. Too short, and you may not be able to get it out effectively.
- A good source of light. Having a good source of light is a must. Use a bright reading light, head lamp or other focused light source.
- Disinfectants (for the tools, not your wound). “These really have one purpose: to clean,” Dr. Bates said. “They should be used to disinfect your tools and skin that hasn’t been broken to remove bacteria before any invasive procedure.” If used in a wound and you’ll kill the healthy tissue you need to start the defense and repair process.
Steps to safely remove a splinter
Step 1: Rinse the area
A good rule of thumb is to run the wound under cold running water for 30 seconds. If you’re not near a water source, use about 20 ounces of bottled water to flush out the area. If the wound is dirty or greasy, use a gentle soap to clean the wound. As well, don’t forget to wash your hands with soap and water.
Step 2: Sterilize your tools
Use the disinfectant (iodine, hydrogen peroxide, rubbing alcohol) to sanitize your tweezers and/or needle.
Step 3: Remove the splinter
If the splinter is shallow enough, you can use a needle to gently scratch or pick the skin open above the splinter. Then you can either use the needle to back out the splinter or grasp the end with tweezers to pull it out.
Step 4: Rewash the area
Once you’ve removed the glass or wood splinter, clean the wound as well as you can with soap and water.
Step 5: Cover
Cover the wound with gauze or a clean bandage to stop bleeding and prevent contamination of the wound. If you prefer, you can use an antibiotic ointment, but it’s not necessary.
What to do when a splinter is no longer a DIY
“Keep a close eye on the wound for signs of infection,” Dr. Bates said. “If you begin to have increased redness and pain or puslike discharge, seek medical care as soon as possible.”
As well, if you’re not able to remove the pesky splinter, it occurs on a joint or it’s deeply embedded in your skin, you should see your health care provider or go to your local urgent care and have it removed to prevent infection.
“In general, any splinter that penetrates through the full thickness of the skin into the tissue below needs to be seen by a health care provider to determine whether the wound needs to be explored and whether preventive antibiotics need to be prescribed,” Dr. Bates said. “This is particularly true for treated wood products.”
Treated lumber is coated with antifungal chemicals to prevent rot. Without the natural wood fungus, more aggressive bacteria tend to grow in the wood, and they can cause some devastating infections.
Also, patients who have diabetes should be very careful with wounds on the feet. “I would recommend any diabetic patients who have any foot wound that goes through the full thickness of the skin should be evaluated,” advised Dr. Bates.
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