That splinter in your foot: Do you yank, coax, or cry? - (9/13/2022)

By Dr. Ron Gasbarro

Sal hobbled into the pharmacy, wincing in pain. "Doc, I got a splinter in my toe this morning while walking barefoot in the backyard. I can't seem to dislodge it. Any suggestions?" The pharmacist explained that the first thing to determine is the type of foreign matter that entered the skin. Wood, glass, plastic, and metal are the usual culprits. And that's just in one's backyard. More unusual sources of splinters – or slivers – come from sea urchins, stingray spines, shellfish, and discarded fishhooks. Ouch! 

While splinters can invade anywhere in the body, the feet and hands are the most likely areas. But wherever they are, the goal is to remove the object before it becomes infected. As opposed to inorganic materials, such as glass or plastic, organic matter, such as wood, is most likely to rot under the warm skin and explode into a bacterial contamination. Arborists have tagged redwood, pine, and walnut as the woods most likely to harbor bacteria. Remove these types of splinters as soon as possible. However, be aware that any foreign object embedded in the skin will become inflamed as the immune system attempts to oust it from its midst.     

Heck, 99% of splinters will hurt. But – a wild guess here – you can tweeze out 99% of the fragments, clean up the area, and forget about the nightmare. Some splinters, however, can be a pain in the butt. For example, did the object enter the skin vertically or at an angle? Shards that puncture the skin vertically can be a bear to yank out. Many doctors and urgent care centers have special tools to extract the deeper splinters. Anything near the eye or under the nail looked at by a healthcare professional. 

However, you can safely remove most splinters at home. Tweezers, which should be in every first aid kit, are excellent. Always wash them under hot water to make them as germ-free as possible. More creative methods exist. Ask grandma! For example, a dab of white glue – never super glue! – when applied to the spot and left to dry, can lift out the sliver. Also, while a warm damp cloth can ease the removal, a bottle of water works even better. Just bring some water to a boil. Fill a bottle with the water to the brim. Place the opening over the site of the splinter. The steam and hot water will draw the splinter out just enough for you to tug it out with your tweezers.  

Everyone should have hydrogen peroxide in their first aid kit. When applied to the skin, this disinfectant causes swelling, pushing the splinter out. Other remedies include soaking the area in Epsom salts, making a baking soda paste, and taping the underside of a banana peel or a potato slice and leaving it on overnight. And for gosh sakes, do not try and squeeze out the splinter. That can make the solid piece crumble into smaller pieces, increasing the infection rate. If the area becomes infected, seek medical attention because you may need an antibiotic. 

The pharmacist asked Sal when he last got a tetanus shot. Tetanus is an affliction whereby the bacterium Clostridium tetani, found in the soil, causes painful muscle contractions and stiffness. Once termed lockjaw, it clamps down on the jaw and neck muscles and causes seizures, fever, and other potentially life-threatening problems. Ask about a Tdap or a DTaP vaccine that protects against tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis. Adults should get a booster every 5 to 10 years. 

Sal successfully removed the splinter from his toe using duct tape and then applied antibiotic cream and a bandage over the area. "It was pretty painless," he said. "Yes, remember when your dog got attacked by the porcupine?" asked the pharmacist. "What a disaster! The quills covered his snout," chuckled Sal. "Poor boy! That was a medical emergency! But we both survived." 

Ron Gasbarro, PharmD, is a recovering pharmacist and writer-in-residence at Rx-Press.

The content contained in this article is for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Reliance on any information provided in this article is solely at your own risk.


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