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February 1999

Healing Thorns, Splinters, And Other Pricks

How to deal with all kinds of things that get under your skin.

It’s a prickly world out there. Splinters, cactus spines, thorns-at some point or another, you’re bound to encounter a little sharp thing that’s rudely lodged itself under your epidermis. Your options are several: Try and ignore it and hope it goes away (it won’t); try to grab the offending pricker with your fingers (chances are, you’ll only make things worse); or open

your well-stocked first-aid kit and quickly deal with the problem. Be prepared with, as some wise person once said, “The right tool for the right job.”

WHAT YOU’LL NEED

At home, check your first-aid kit for the following. If any of the items are missing, head to the nearest drug store and make a purchase.

  • Small forceps (tweezers) with pointed tips.
  • Multitool.
  • Scalpel, or a sharp, small pocket knife, which you’ll sterilize in the woods by briefly heating with a match or lighter.
  • Soap and water or other wound cleaner, antibiotic ointment, and adhesive bandages.
  • You also should have an up-to-date tetanus shot.

WHAT TO DO

Once stuck, remove the offending object as soon as possible. Besides being painfully irritating, wood splinters, thorns, or other organic prickers left in your body can lead to a bacterial or fungal infection. Though a nonorganic sliver like metal or glass has been known to stay harmlessly in a body for years, it doesn’t belong there so get it out.

Be careful but deliberate. First, sterilize your tools with a flame, but don’t wipe off the black residue. It won’t hurt you and you want to avoid recontamination. Shine a light on your subject. A headlamp is ideal because you can direct the beam right where you want it. Next comes the part that gets most people in trouble: picking at the exposed end. It seems like the obvious thing to do, but what usually happens is that you fragment the splinter or drive it deeper, both of which make the job harder.

Instead, grasp the end with the forceps, and pull it gently out along the same path it took going in. Simple. If it’s buried too deep to grab, probe gently with your fingers until you find the sharp end that went in first, then push the object toward the opening of the wound until the other end is visible.

With deeply buried splinters, you may need to cut a bit of the skin away with your scalpel or sterilized knife to expose the object. Cut along the long axis of the splinter, and be careful. You want to “tease” the skin open just enough to get a firm grip on the splinter’s head. Once the splinter is out, apply antibiotic and an adhesive bandage to prevent infection.

Using these simple tools and techniques, you should be able to quickly remove 90 percent of the little things that get under your skin. (Except for that whining coworker. You’re on your own there.) For the other 10 percent that need special treatment, read on.

CACTUS SPINES

The tools: Forceps, a small bottle of glue or rubber cement, and a gauze pad.

The remedy: Cactus-stabbing victims rarely say, “Oh, look, a cactus spine is stuck in my leg.” More likely, you hear a yowl of pain and notice that a portion of your buddy’s anatomy resembles a pincushion. If all you have is forceps, find a comfortable spot, sit down, and start plucking.

If you planned ahead for your

cactus-country hike and included a small bottle of white glue or rubber cement in your first-aid kit, you can use a more efficient method. If you’re using rubber cement, smear a generous glob over all the spines, and let it dry. If you’re using Elmer’s or a similar glue, spread the glue over the spines, and then gently press on a piece of gauze while the glue is moist. After the adhesive dries, peel off the gauze or layer of rubber cement.

PORCUPINE QUILLS

The tools: Small pliers or forceps.

The remedy: While the actual impalement with a porcupine quill is painful enough, it can get worse. Any movement causes the quills to migrate deeper into flesh. Plus a quill’s spongy core absorbs body fluid, causing it to swell and become more difficult to remove.

Working quickly and carefully is vital, since a broken quill under the skin requires surgical removal. With pliers or forceps, take hold of the quill as close to the skin as possible. Pull it straight out, and expect a considerable amount of pain.

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