Foreign bodies in the skin can range from superficial slivers to larger objects that penetrate deep into the skin.
It is usually easiest to remove a foreign body in the skin if the wound is examined within 24 hours of the injury, because the entry wound is still visible and open. Older injuries have inflammation, a hard lump, scarring, and tissue that may bleed more easily, making it more difficult to locate the foreign body. In addition, the risk of infection increases over time until the wound has fully healed.
Depending on the foreign body and the nature of the injury, not all foreign bodies in the skin need to be removed.
How to Do Foreign Body Removal at Home
In some cases, small, superficial slivers that don’t cause pain or other symptoms may be left in place. As the skin sheds these superficial slivers will work their way out, or the body will form a small pimple around them that will drain on its own. For a small, superficial sliver:
- Keep the wound clean and dry
- Antiseptic solutions should not be used to clean foreign body wounds because they can slow healing
- Apply over-the-counter (OTC) antibiotic ointment such as bacitracin zinc and polymyxin B sulfate (Polysporin) if needed
Home care for minor slivers that need to be removed from the skin includes:
- To remove tiny plant stickers, cactus spines, or fiberglass spicules
- These may be difficult to remove because they are fragile and can break easily when tweezers are used
- Touch the area lightly with packaging tape, duct tape, or another sticky tape
- If tape doesn’t work, apply a layer of wax hair remover
- Let the wax air-dry for five minutes and peel it off to remove most of the stickers
- Any that are not removed will usually work themselves out with normal skin shedding
- To remove larger slivers or thorns:
- These may be removed with a needle and tweezers
- Sterilize the tools with rubbing alcohol
- Clean the skin surrounding the sliver with rubbing alcohol (if rubbing alcohol is not available, soap and water will work, but do not soak an area with embedded wood because water can cause wood splinters to swell)
- Using the needle, completely expose the large end of the sliver and then grasp the end firmly with the tweezers, pulling it out at the same angle that it entered the skin
- Apply over-the-counter (OTC) antibiotic ointment such as bacitracin zinc and polymyxin B sulfate (Polysporin) if needed after removal
If foreign bodies cause pain, over-the-counter (OTC) pain medicines may be used such as:
- Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)
- Naproxen (Aleve)
- Acetaminophen (Tylenol)
- Do not give aspirin to children because it can cause Reye’s syndrome, a rare but serious illness
When to See a Doctor for Foreign Body Removal
For foreign bodies in the skin that are unable to be removed at home, medical removal by a healthcare professional includes:
- Splinter removal
- A doctor may need to use specialized tweezers
- An incision may be needed to access the object
- Surgery may be required if conservative attempts to are unable to remove the object
- Fish hook removal
- There are many kinds of fish hooks so it is helpful to bring an identical hook to the doctor so they can visualize how the hook might be embedded into the skin
- Depending on the patient, the location of the wound, and how the hook is embedded, a digital block (used on fingers and toes) or anesthesia to numb the area may be needed
- Hooks that are not barbed may be backed out following the curve of the hook
- Barbed hooks may need to be pushed all the way through to the other side, and then the barbed end will be cut with a wire cutter so the shank of the hook can then be backed out
- Other methods may be used depending on the patient, the location of the wound, and how the hook is embedded
Other treatments for foreign bodies in the skin may include:
What Are Symptoms of Foreign Bodies in the Skin?
Symptoms of foreign bodies in the skin include:
- The sensation of something being under the skin
See a doctor if you have a foreign body in the skin and:
- Signs of infection, such as:
- Fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher, or as directed by your healthcare provider
- Redness, red streaks, or swelling in the area
- Pus draining from the wound
- Increased or severe pain
- You are reluctant or unable to take out the foreign body
- It is deeply embedded
- It has a barb (e.g., fishhook)
- It is a BB
- It is a deep puncture wound and your last tetanus shot was more than five years prior
How Are Foreign Objects Bodies in the Diagnosed?
Foreign bodies in the skin can be diagnosed with a patient history and physical examination of the injury.
Topical lidocaine (a numbing agent) may be used to help examine a painful wound, especially in children.
Imaging is not always needed if the object can be seen or if it does not need to be removed.
If the object is not visible or if it needs to be removed, imaging tests that are used to determine the location of the object and the severity of the wound may include:
- Computed tomography (CT) scan