If you’ve ever had a splinter before, you’ll know that it can be painful and often quite difficult to remove. So what happens if you don’t remove a splinter?
According to the American Association of Family Physicians, splinters can break down the skin, leading to inflammation, infection, toxic reactions, and granuloma formation, especially if booster vaccinations are not up to date. (opens in a new tab).
“The skin is a physical barrier that prevents infections. Leaving a splinter in the skin makes it easier for outside bacteria to enter under the skin,” certified nurse practitioner Ashley Jones told Live Science.
If the shard was carrying bacteria, leaving it in the skin provides an easy way for bacteria to make their way into your bloodstream, Jones said.
You can try to remove the splinters by applying slow, steady pressure and using tweezers, but if that fails, Jones advised “seek medical care.”
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Not all splinters can be safely removed at home. Dr. Jeffrey Biehler, director of pediatrics at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami, told Live Science that removing a deeply embedded splinter can cause bleeding. If removing the splinters causes heavy bleeding, go to a health care center where they can help you use sterile instruments.
The shards that remain in the body are not simply absorbed. Instead, the body is more likely to reject the burst and try to push it back, which can create inflammation. (opens in a new tab) and pockets of pus, Biehler added.
If the inflammatory response continues for several days or weeks, the area can sometimes develop a somewhat permanent bump or what’s called a “granuloma,” Jones added. It is a sort of protective bubble of immune system cells that surrounds the foreign object that the body has not been able to eliminate.
Sometimes the body can naturally expel a splinter of skin without causing an inflammatory reaction, Biehler said. Other times, the splinter may remain in the skin forever.
Biehler noted that one of her nurse friends had had a one-inch-long (2.54 cm) thorn in her hand for 40 years. “You can feel it, she can move it… [but] it doesn’t cause her any pain,” he said. “She’s been fine for 40 years,” he added.
“It’s a fine line between what needs to be seen [by a doctor]what needs to be removed and what can be left alone,” Biehler said. But in general, shards that you move around the house or shards that come from plant material, like wood, “usually have to come out, because the body reacts to it.”
In all cases, foreign bodies lodged in the skin — especially in children and the elderly, who may be more prone to infection — should be evaluated by a medical professional, he said.
Originally published on Live Science in June. November 15, 2019 and updated November 2, 2022.