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ER or Not: Stepped on a Rusty Nail

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ER or Not: Stepped on a Rusty Nail

May 19, 2023

You step on a rusty nail, should you go to the ER? Are you at risk of tetanus? Emergency Department doctor Jeffrey Druck, MD, tells you on this episode of ER or Not.

Episode Transcript

Interviewer: All right. Play along and see if you know the answer to today's "ER or Not" with emergency room physician Dr. Jeffrey Druck. Are you ready?

Dr. Druck: I think so. Let's hear it, Scot.

The Scenario: Stepped on a Rusty Nail

Interviewer: I was out hiking or maybe I was working, and I stepped on a rusty nail. It went through my boot and it just barely broke the skin on my foot. I bled a little bit. ER or not?

Dr. Druck: So yeah, Scot, in that situation, it sounds like the nail has already come out. And I think that's the first key element, is you want to make sure that the nail isn't stuck in your foot. If you're having trouble getting it out, there's always a chance that it's stuck into the bone, and that might justify a trip to the emergency department.

It should be pretty easy for you to figure out though. I mean, if you give it a little tug and it does come out, then you probably don't have it stuck in the bone.

Determining the Need for Emergency Care

Interviewer: Okay. So then if I am able to get the nail out, it's just barely kind of punctured the skin or maybe just slightly punctured the skin, do I need to go to the ER at that point?

Dr. Druck: Well, the only reason that you might need to go to the ER would be if you actually have a concern about this becoming infected. If you're diabetic, you have other immunocompromised problems like cancer or other things, then your risk for infection is a little higher than the average person. For most people, this is not going to be something that you need anything for.

There is a certain bacteria that sometimes lives in sneakers that people get a little more concerned about, but if this just barely broke the skin, odds are you can just wash this and it's going to be fine.

Urgent Care Options

The other component is that you can probably go to an urgent care and they'd be able to prescribe antibiotics for you also. And so I think that this is probably one of those that you don't need to come to the emergency department for.

Interviewer: All right. And what about the worry of tetanus? Isn't that something I should be concerned about?

Dr. Druck: Tetanus is a great concern, and I'm glad you brought that up. We in general want everyone to have their tetanus shot because tetanus is one of those things that's almost impossible for us to treat once it's progressed to a certain time period.

The general rule is that you want to have a tetanus shot every 10 years. But in the emergency department, we'll re-dose you every five because we know that sometimes people forget exactly when it is that they got it last.

Again, this is something that they can do at urgent care, so it's not something that's going to require you a trip to the emergency department. But if your tetanus is not up to date, our first advice would be to go see your primary care doctor and get it up to date regardless before this even happens.

Interviewer: All right. Final diagnosis, ER or Not, I stepped on a rusty nail.

Dr. Druck: The answer is not the emergency department. Head to your local urgent care or just rinse it out yourself.