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Can a splinter kill you?

This statue of the Greek deity Pan removing a splinter from a satyr's foot dates back to the third century B.C.E.
This statue of the Greek deity Pan removing a splinter from a satyr's foot dates back to the third century B.C.E.
Print Collector/Getty Images

As the first batter warms up at the plate, a new wave of baseball fans arrives and you scoot across the wooden bleachers to make room for more bodies. In an instant, a splinter the size of Connecticut lodges under the skin on the back of your thigh.

As you assess the damage and try to remove the offending sliver, you wonder whether it's merely a nuisance or a real cause for worry.

Usually, a splinter is just a pain — in the thigh, or elsewhere. But in some cases, yes, a splinter can cause health problems that can kill you.

While the majority of splinters result in only minor injuries and can be removed easily at home with tweezers, some splinters require more serious attention. These splinters are more dangerous because of their makeup, size or location.

Wood splinters may contain oils and resins that cause severe inflammation, and splinters from the thorns of certain plants may cause toxic reactions.

A large and deep splinter can become life-threatening if it's affecting vital organs or blood vessels. In these cases, a trip to a physician might be in order. The splinter could require imaging technology to better understand its precarious placement before it can be extracted.

Even a small, superficial splinter can be problematic. If the splinter is contaminated with bacteria or bacteria get in the open wound caused by the splinter, a dangerous condition could ensue. Tetanus, for example, occurs when Clostridium tetani bacteria in animal feces and soil enter the body through a puncture wound. The bacteria produce a byproduct known as tetanospasmin, a toxin that affects the nervous system and, in the most severe cases, causes death by respiratory failure, cardiac arrest or pneumonia.

It may not be possible to prevent a splinter, but you can prevent tetanus with a vaccine. These vaccines are part of childhood immunizations, but most adults also require a booster every 10 years [source: Mayo Clinic].

Before you consign yourself to a summer spent indoors, the good news is that death doesn't lurk in every sliver of wood or glass, or in every thorn or plant spike. The vast majority of splinters cause few problems. They're easily removed, or the body encapsulates them and prevents them from doing further harm. Either way, death by splinter shouldn't top your list of worries.

Epic Science: Death