Needlestick injuries

What should I do if I injure myself with a used needle?

Needlestick injuries may pass on an infection in any blood on the needle.

Key points

  1. If you pierce or puncture your skin with a used needle, clean the wound and see a doctor straight away.
  2. A needlestick injury puts you at risk of being infected with viruses such as hepatitis B, hepatitis C or HIV. 
  3. The risk depends on several factors such as whether the person who used the needle has an infection and how much virus is in their blood.
  4. The best way to prevent needlestick injuries is to dispose of used needles in a sharps container.

What is a needlestick injury?

A needlestick or sharps injury is when your skin is penetrated by a needle or other sharp object (such as a syringe, scalpel or broken glass) that has been in contact with blood, tissue or other body fluids.

Image credit: 123rf

What should I do if I get a needlestick injury?

Injuries from discarded needles in the community are not common and infections are rare. However, if you pierce or puncture your skin with a used needle, follow this first aid advice immediately:

  • Wash the wound with soap and water.
  • If soap and water aren’t available, use an alcohol-based hand rub or solution.
  • Go straight to your doctor or the nearest hospital emergency department.

Your doctor will assess the risks to your health and ask about your injury, such as how and when it happened and who had used the needle. They will assess what testing you require and whether any treatment to prevent infection is needed.

They will also advise whether you need to follow any extra precautions such as practicing safe sex and avoiding blood donation. Check with your healthcare provider how long these extra precautions are needed. 

Needlestick injuries among healthcare workers

Needlestick injuries are most likely to happen among healthcare workers who are accidentally exposed to infected blood (occupational exposure). If you are at work you should follow your local occupational health guideline for needlestick injuries. 

What are the concerns with needlestick injuries?

The concern with a needlestick injury is the risk that any viruses in blood on the needle might be passed on, such as hepatitis B, hepatitis C or HIV.

The risk of transmission following a needlestick injury depends on several factors:

  • whether the person who previously used the object had an infection
  • the level of virus in their blood
  • the amount of blood involved
  • the type of needle or syringe
  • the time that has passed since it was used
  • the nature of the injury.

How should I get rid of used needles safely?

You must get rid of your used needles and syringes safely.

  • Keep them out of reach of children and pets, and places where they could hurt others.
  • You can do this by buying a sharps container from your pharmacy.
  • This is a special container made of hard plastic that has a tight-fitting lid so used needles and syringes can be stored securely.
  • Don't flush used needles and syringes down the toilet or put them in household or public rubbish or recycle bins.
  • Once your sharps container is full, take it to your pharmacy for safe disposal.
  • Talk to your pharmacist about how you can get rid of your needles and syringes safely.

Learn more

Needlestick injury Better Health Channel, Australia
Exposure to body fluids – keeping the primary healthcare team safe BPAC, NZ, 2014

Information for healthcare providers

Needlestick injury guidelines Starship NZ
Exposure to body fluids – keeping the primary healthcare team safe BPAC, NZ, 2014
Needlestick injuries, blood or body fluid exposure, information and test forms Aotea Pathology, NZ
Guidelines for safe piercing of the skin Ministry of Health, NZ
Needlestick injuries – epidemiology, management and prevention Patient Info, UK

Reviewed by

Dr Veronica Playle is a clinical microbiologist and infectious diseases physician. She is currently completing her PhD at the University of Auckland and works part-time for Auckland District Health Board.
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. Reviewed By: Dr Veronica Playle, Clinical microbiologist, Auckland Last reviewed: 10 Jul 2020