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Why Shouldn't I Pick a Scab?

By Gregory Hanson
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Scabs serve an important function by protecting the vulnerable tissues of the body while they are healing. Although the itching can make it difficult, it is important not to pick a scab while the wound is still healing, because this can cause the wound to take longer to heal and can expose the wound to infection. Additionally, tearing off a scab prematurely can increase the risk of scarring, as additional damage is inflicted on the skin. Finally, some scabs are cause by infections of the body, and removing these scabs not only delays healing but can potentially increase the chances of passing along an infection.

Wounds take time to heal as new cells grow to replace those that were damaged and as nerves and blood vessels re-attach themselves. This process is delicate and requires protection from the environment. Scabs provide this protection. No matter how badly a wound itches during the healing process, it is never a good idea to pick a scab, as doing so will disrupt the natural repair process at work in the wounded area and thus delay healing.

The skin serves to protect the rest of the body from the vast majority of infectious agents in the environment. When the skin is broken by a wound, this protection is lost, and the body’s tissues become vulnerable to infection. A scab serves to guard the site of an injury against pathogens, and this protection is another important reason not to pick a scab before healing is complete.

Scarring is a common side effect of injury. Not all wounds generate scars, however, and not all scars are large or noticeable. The size and severity of a wound is important in determining whether or not a noticeable scar will form, but the course of the healing process is also a contributing factor. When a patient fails to resist the urge to pick a scab, they increase the amount of time it takes for a wound to heal and inflict additional injury to the body, thereby increasing the chance that a scar will form.

A final important reason not to pick a scab stems from the need to avoid spreading infections. Most scabs are caused by injuries, which are obviously not contagious. Some, however, stem from infection. Cold sores, for example, are caused by a viral infection, and picking at the scab that forms while a cold sore is healing may increase the odds of spreading the infection to others. Picking the scab can also increase the risk of secondary infection and scarring, and should be avoided.

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Discussion Comments
By Mor — On Aug 21, 2013

@umbra21 - In my experience the best way to stop kids from compulsive picking at scabs is to put a band-aid over the sore spot and just keep replacing it until the skin heals. It's not ideal, but sometimes that's the best you can do.

I remember my brother would not stop picking at a scab on his head when we were kids and in the end it became quite infected and the doctor had to wrap a bandage around his head to stop him from touching it. He was only very young though and just couldn't seem to help himself. The other problem is that when kids are that young they don't wash their hands as often as you want them to and they can introduce infection to an open wound much more easily as well.

So I guess another good tip is to make sure your kids wash their hands well, with soap, as often as possible if they've got a scratch or something that needs to heal.

By umbra21 — On Aug 21, 2013

@bythewell - I remember being told by my father when I was a kid that it's a good thing to pick at scabs when they've got to a certain point, because removing them would help the wound heal better.

You should only do it when they've almost got to the point where they are falling off by themselves though.

I don't know if he thought that this was completely true, or if he just wanted to give me a guideline to stop me from doing it too early though.

By bythewell — On Aug 20, 2013

I know it's incredibly tempting to pick at a scab, but there's no good reason to do so. It will come off by itself as soon as the skin underneath has healed.

I used to do this when I was a kid and it was a really bad habit. My mother tried everything to get me to stop picking at scabs but nothing worked. Even though I could see that it made the scratches take a lot longer to heal.

I guess it's a kid thing, because I've seen my nephew do it as well. In my opinion the best thing to do is just to distract them from it, rather than trying to directly stop them.

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