How to Remove a Splinter (and When to Call the Doctor)

The best tools and practices from a pediatrician

How to Remove a Splinter (and When to Call the Doctor)

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.

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You take a look at their foot. Sure enough, you notice 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 is especially important to have organic material – say, a piece of wood or a thorn – removed as soon as possible, as it may become infected more quickly than inorganic material such as metal or glass, says pediatrician Kyle Mudd, DO. It should be removed that day, if possible.

When to leave it to a 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:

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  • 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 is 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 to 15 minutes.

Tools, tips and tricks

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.

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, Dr. Mudd says. 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.

Remove. 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.

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“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,” he explains. “Once the splinter is exposed, you may attempt to grab it using tweezers and pull it out along the same route that it entered the skin.”

Prevent infection. If you are 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.”

Talk about tetanus

Regardless of how it’s removed, if your child gets a splinter, it’s important to make sure they are up to date on their tetanus vaccine, to prevent a rare but possible serious infection. The 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.­­

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