The risk of stepping on a discarded needle is an unfortunate reality in many public spaces across Canada.

Earlier this week, a three-year-old child was pricked by an uncapped syringe at a park on Vancouver Island.

While such incidents might be a parent's worst nightmare, health officials have shared advice for anyone who might accidentally come into contact with a syringe.

"You are going to have a lot of worry after something like this," said Murray Fyfe, a medical officer with Island Health.

"Even though it's not a high risk, it is going to cause some concerns."

Let the area bleed

According to Fyfe, it's important not to panic: there isn't a high risk of transmission of blood-borne pathogens — including HIV and hepatitis C — through such contact.

The first thing anyone should do if they've stepped on a needle, Fyfe said, is to let the affected area bleed if it has broken the skin.

used needles

Used needles are left in Vancouver's Hinge Park. (Tanya Fletcher/CBC)

"Don't squeeze it, but just let it bleed," Fyfe said. "Try to wash it with soap and water."

Patients are then urged to contact the communicable disease office of their local health authority, or visit a nearby emergency department to see a doctor or nurse.

"The reason to do that isn't because we think it's a very high risk — but just to allow for the assessment of risk," said Fyfe.

Doctors will assess the size of the wound, as well as the patient's vaccination history, to determine the best course of action.

"There's a risk of a local infection in the wound, there's always the risk of tetanus, if a person hasn't been appropriately immunized for tetanus," he added.

Reducing risks

Overall, Fyfe said the risk of stepping on a used syringe is quite low, especially as used syringe depositories are becoming more prevalent in public spaces.

sharps container

Park Rangers in Vancouver collect discarded needles every morning at 'hot spots' where homeless residents camp. (David Horemans/CBC)

However, he says it's always important to be vigilant when entering public spaces that have a history of discarded syringes.

Fyfe hopes the implementation of more supervised consumption sites will help quell the amount of discarded needles that end up in parks and on sidewalks.

"The more of these types of programs, such as supervised consumption sites and overdose prevention units... it gives people a place to get off the street when they're using drugs, and therefore that's going to reduce the chances of a needle inadvertently being left behind in the community."

With files from CBC's All Points West