How to Treat an Infected Toenail

Ingrown toenails are an unpleasant source of nail distress, and if left untreated, they may progress to an infected toenail. Even if your toenails are in excellent condition, a toenail may become painful due to injury: You've dropped something on it or you've bruised it by stubbing it or banging it repeatedly against the too-tight toe box of your running shoe.

In other cases, nails become weak because of poor nutrition (generally, a vitamin C deficiency) or other factors. But whatever the cause of your toenail discomfort, the following information about toenail conditions and suggestions for how to treat an infected toenail should help.

Nail discoloration -- a "blackened toenail" -- happens when blood accumulates underneath a nail. Usually the discoloration will go away by itself, although sometimes you may feel pain when the tender toenail pushes against your shoe as you walk. If so, place a bandage or piece of tape around the nail to cushion it while it recovers.

If your nail doesn't heal by itself, see a doctor, who can numb the toe and drill a small hole in the nail to let the pooled-up blood out. Discoloration may also be due to aging or to years of wearing nail polish. This problem can be solved with bleaching agents available from a podiatrist.

If you have naturally brittle nails, which are more easily injured, rub lanolin or petroleum jelly on them every day. If you've jarred a nail and it seems loose or the top appears disconnected from the skin around it, place a bandage across the nail and secure it all the way around the toe. Change the bandage frequently but keep the nail covered this way for a few weeks, while the injured part has a chance to grow out and be replaced by strong nail.

Sometimes a bad jolt can cause the nail to separate from the nail bed, and it will loosen at first at the bottom of the nail. This is called onychomadesis. The nail may come completely off. A new nail will grow in, but that can take as long as six months. In the meantime, you must protect the tender toe by covering and padding it to prevent infection and painful contact with shoes.

Another nail infection is onychomycosis, a fungal infection also known as ringworm of the nail. It usually begins at the end of the nail, although the whole nail gradually turns black or brown and becomes thin and flaky. This infection is very hard to treat; some cases can take as long as a year or two to get under control. If you develop ringworm, see a doctor. He or she will probably trim your nails very short, try to remove as much of the fungus as possible, and prescribe an antifungal agent such as potassium hydroxide or Whitfield's ointment to be applied to the affected nail.

Then there's onychauxis, a condition common in older people in which the nail has grown extremely thick and has become uncuttable. If this happens to your nail or to the nail of an older person under your care, don't try to cut it yourself; instead, let a doctor file down the nail with a special drill or remove the nail under anesthesia.

Some disorders of the nail are side effects of other health problems. For example, infections such as syphilis and tuberculosis affect many body systems, including the nails. Arthritis can produce ridges in your nails. Certain skin conditions, such as psoriasis, can loosen nails and make them brittle.

There are several prescription and over-the-counter products on the market specifically for the treatment of toenail infections and other nail troubles. But most nail problems can be avoided if you follow a simple routine for nail health:

Trim your toenails straight across the top rather than trying to round them out; if rough areas remain, gently file them smooth.

Wear shoes that don't put pressure on the tops or sides of your toes. That means choosing shoes with a toe box that is long enough to accommodate your longest toe, wide enough to keep your toes from being squeezed together, and high enough to allow you to wiggle your toes while your feet are in the shoes.

Make sure that you eat enough foods that are rich in vitamin C, such as broccoli, cauliflower, cantaloupe, grapefruit, oranges and orange juice, and strawberries.

WARNING: If you have a blackened toenail that does not appear to be healing on its own or that is very uncomfortable, see a podiatrist.

Warts found on the foot are another commonly experienced problem. Find out how to avoid them -- and how to treat them -- in the next section.

To learn more about treating and avoiding problems with your feet, visit:

  • Foot Injuries: Find out how to avoid unpleasant injuries to your feet, or at least reduce pain and prevent infection after they occur, with these simple suggestions.
  • How to Care for Your Feet: Learn how to keep your feet -- and yourself -- healthy and happy with these tips on caring for your feet, including selecting the right shoes.
This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.