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Slivers or Splinters (Foreign Body in Skin)

A foreign body in the skin is most commonly a sliver of some material. Most of the time it is a wood splinter that goes in just very slightly under the skin.

If the sliver is a piece of pencil lead, remember that what is called "pencil lead" is not really lead. It is actually graphite, which is harmless. Even colored pencil leads are nontoxic.

How do I remove it?

Most very tiny slivers that are not deep in the skin do not need to be removed. They will come out with normal shedding of the skin.

Using a needle and tweezers

Remove large splinters, slivers, or thorns with a needle and tweezers.

  • Check the tweezers beforehand to be certain the ends meet exactly. (If they do not, bend them.) Sterilize the tools with rubbing alcohol or a flame.
  • Clean the skin surrounding the sliver briefly with alcohol before trying to remove it. Be careful not to push the splinter in deeper.
  • Use the needle to completely expose the large end of the sliver. Use good lighting. A magnifying glass may help.
  • Grasp the end firmly with the tweezers and pull it out at the same angle that it went in. Getting a good grip the first time is especially important with slivers that go in perpendicular to the skin or those trapped under the fingernail.
  • For slivers under a fingernail, sometimes a wedge of the nail must be cut away with fine scissors to expose the end of the sliver.
  • Horizontal slivers on the surface of the skin (where you can see all of it) usually can be removed by pulling on the end. If the end breaks off, open the skin with a sterile needle along the length of the sliver and flick it out.
  • After removal, apply antibiotic ointment (OTC) once to reduce the risk of infection.

Removing cactus spines

Usually cactus spines break when pressure is applied with tweezers. The following method can be used for removing cactus spines, as well as small fiberglass spicules or plant stickers (for example, stinging nettle): Apply a layer of hair remover wax. Let it air-dry for 5 minutes, or speed up the process with a hair dryer. Then peel off the gel or wax with the spicules. You can also try white glue, but it is less effective.

When should I call my child's healthcare provider?

Call IMMEDIATELY if:

  • You think you won't be able to get the sliver out or you can't get it out.
  • The sliver is deeply embedded (for example, a needle in the foot).
  • The area where the sliver went in becomes infected.

Call during office hours if:

  • It was removed but went deeply through the skin (a puncture wound) AND more than 5 years have passed since the last tetanus booster.
  • You have other concerns or questions.
Written by Barton D. Schmitt, MD, author of “My Child Is Sick,” American Academy of Pediatrics Books.
Pediatric Advisor 2013.2 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2011-06-07
Last reviewed: 2012-05-14
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2013 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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