Pulling Cactus Spines from Your Green Thumb

If you can't stand the spines, stay out of the cactus garden. As any friend of cactii knows, those needles can be a real nuisance if you get one embedded in your finger. Fortunately, there are some easy ways to get them out.

What's with Those Spines, Anyway?
Spines are a defense mechanism for cactus plants. In their native desert environments, the absorbent interior tissues of cactii can hold water for months, which is slowly released to keep the plant alive. Animals know that there's water inside a cactus. They'd gladly devour the plant to get at that moisture if it wasn't for a coating of sharp spines to keep them away.

Cactus spines vary from hair-thin bristles to sharp, splinterlike protrusions. Smaller bristles usually aren't much of a problem, as they won't penetrate the skin too deeply. The larger bristles can cause severe discomfort and are a potential infection risk, which makes it important to remove them as quickly as possible.

Removing Cactus Spines
The best way to pull out cactus spines is with a pair of tweezers. Avoid the urge to pull the spine out with your fingernails or teeth; more often than not, you'll wind up breaking off the exposed part of the spine, leaving the rest of it trapped under your skin.

Grasp the spine with the tweezers where it meets your skin. Line up the tweezers so that they're perfectly in line with the spine, like a straight extension of it. Pull back on the tweezers in a smooth motion, matching the angle the spine went in as closely as possible. This should get the spine out in one piece. Keep an eye on the area for signs of infection.

No Tweezers? No Problem
If you don't have tweezers or there isn't enough spine to grab, you can try removing it with non-toxic craft glue. Apply a generous amount of glue to the area, and cover it with gauze. Let the glue set for about 30 minutes, then carefully remove the gauze. The spines should pull out with the glue. This can be particularly effective if you've got a lot of small spines stuck in your skin.

In a pinch, hair removal wax can also be effective. Don't use tape to remove small spines, as these often have tiny barbs that will break off under the skin.

Watch for Infection
Infections from cactus spines are rare, but they can occur if the spines penetrate deeply. A little bit of pus usually isn't cause for alarm; that's the body's way of pushing out the foreign object, and pressing on the area may get the spine loose. If redness and pain develops, try soaking the area in hot water mixed with epsom salts for 15 to 20 minutes. If the area becomes swollen or very tender, see a doctor for treatment.

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