It’s a familiar situation for many parents: Your child is playing in the yard barefoot and comes in complaining that they stepped on something.
You take a look at their foot. Sure enough, you see a tiny splinter.
Should you grab the tweezers from the medicine cabinet, or take your child to urgent care to have it removed? Or does it even need to be taken out at all?
It’s especially important to have organic material — like a piece of wood or a thorn — removed as soon as possible, as it may become infected more quickly than inorganic material — like metal or glass — says pediatrician W. Kyle Mudd, DO. The splinter should be removed that day if possible, too.
When to leave it to your doctor
Once you’ve determined that a splinter needs to come out, it’s time to decide if you’re the best person for the job. Most often, you’ll be able to save a trip to the doctor by removing it yourself. But Dr. Mudd suggests leaving it to the pros if:
- The splinter has entered the skin near the eye or under the fingernail.
- You notice any signs of infection, like red or hardened skin, or discharge that’s white or yellow.
- The splinter has entered the skin vertically. These can be especially difficult to remove at home, but doctors have additional tools that can help.
- The splinter is deep or has broken during attempts to remove it.
- You’ve tried unsuccessfully to remove it for more than 10 or 15 minutes.
How to remove a splinter at home
- Wash. If you’re going to try to remove the splinter at home, the first step is to wash your hands and the affected area with soap and water.
- Properly inspect splinter. Often, a splinter will be very small and in a hard-to-reach spot. Make sure to use a magnifying glass and good lighting to properly view the affected area.
- Soak (optional). Soaking the splintered area in warm water for a few minutes before trying to take it out can make the skin more pliable but isn’t necessarily required. Younger children already tend to have soft skin, so if you do soak, you should only need to do it for a few minutes.
- Sterilize. If the splinter has entered the skin fairly horizontally and part of it is sticking out, a pair of tweezers and a needle wiped down with rubbing alcohol can be helpful in getting it out. In a situation where the entire splinter is underneath the skin, a sterilized needle may be the best tool.
- Bring the splinter to the surface. Especially if it’s a deep splinter, using a needle will help bring it to the surface. When you go to remove the splinter, don’t pinch the skin, Dr. Mudd cautions, because that can put pressure on the splinter and cause it to break into fragments. “I tell people to visualize the splinter and use the needle to feather open the top layer of skin to expose the material you are trying to remove,” Dr. Mudd explains.
- Remove. Once the splinter is at the surface, you can use the same needle to fully remove it. You can also try using a clean pair of tweezers to gently pull on the end that’s visible. “Once the splinter is exposed, you may attempt to grab it using tweezers and pulling it out along the same route that it entered the skin,” he says.
- Prevent infection. If you’re successful in removing the splinter, wash the affected area with soap, put some antibiotic ointment or Vaseline® over it, and cover it with a bandage.
- Don’t panic. If you aren’t able to get the splinter out after 10 or 15 minutes of trying, it’s time to seek help from a medical professional. “You don’t want to cause unnecessary anxiety in your child,” Dr. Mudd says. “Head to urgent care or your pediatrician that day, if possible.”
Other methods for painlessly removing a splinter
While getting a splinter can hurt in the moment, there are some alternative ways of removing a splinter with a little less pain.
- Tape. For smaller, less invasive splinters, try using a piece of sticky tape (such as packing or duct tape) to remove it. Place the tape over the affected area and lift gently.
- Epsom salts. Dissolve a cup of Epsom salt in warm water as an additional way to help pull the splinter out. The salt creates a pressure, which helps bring foreign materials to the surface. Soak the affected area for 10 minutes, or as needed.
- Honey. Since the sweet solution acts as a natural antiseptic, wrapping the splinter wound with honey may help remove it as well. Cover the area in manuka honey and cover it with a bandage for a few hours or overnight. This method will soften your skin, which can help make it easier to remove the splinter afterward.
Should you ever leave a splinter in?
If the wound is small, pain-free and near the surface of the skin, it may be just a sliver that could eventually come out as the skin sheds. But a deeper, more painful splinter shouldn’t be left in due to the risk of infection. If a splinter is small and isn’t causing any pain or discomfort, it sometimes helps to wait until it rises to the surface of the skin. Then, try removing it with tweezers. Otherwise, be sure to take any necessary steps to remove it as soon as possible.
Talk about tetanus
Regardless of how it’s removed, if your child gets a splinter, it’s important to make sure they’re up to date on their tetanus vaccine, to prevent a rare but possibly serious infection. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that children receive their childhood tetanus series, including the DTaP immunizations, at 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, 15 to 18 months and 4 to 6 years old, in addition to a Tdap immunization at 11 to 12 years old. A tetanus booster is required every 10 years after this to help boost waning immunity.