Hangnail Tips and Treatments


A  hangnail can be a doorway to infection. See more pictures of personal hygiene practices.
© iStockphoto.com/Clayton Cole

Regardless of whether wild horses couldn't drag you away from your weekly manicure or your nail care arsenal contains only nail clippers and maybe a nail file, caring for your fingernails and the skin around them is important to your overall health. One annoying problem that even the most carefully groomed hands encounter is the dreaded hangnail. Though hangnails may seem rather insignificant in the grand scheme of health problems, they can become infected and lead to a handful of other issues. Fortunately, there are many ways to avoid hangnail hazards.

Hangnails actually don't have anything to do with your fingernails. Many people confuse hangnails with ingrown nails, a condition in which the corner of your nail grows into the soft skin of your nail bed [source: Mayo Clinic]. In fact, hangnails are the dry, sometimes brittle triangular-shaped tags of skin around your fingernails that can tear off [source: Stedman's Medical Dictionary]. Because there are many different causes of hangnails, everyone gets them occasionally. But chronic, consistent hangnails can lead to bigger problems.

When the skin around your fingernails tears off, it opens the door to infection, especially when you consider all the bacteria your hands are exposed to every day, not to mention dishwater, cold weather and all the other things that dry out your hands in the first place. Fortunately, there are quick and easy ways to prevent hangnails that range from moisturizing often to pampering your hands with cuticle soaks and manicures.

If you just can't beat hangnails, there are also easy ways to treat them. Antibacterial lotions can often do the trick, and in more serious cases, a prescription antibiotic might be in order.

Of course, before you can avoid hangnails, you need to know what causes them. Keep reading to discover the common culprits.

What Causes Hangnails?

You probably notice that you get more hangnails during the cold winter months. You might also notice that during the winter, your skin dries out really fast. Bingo! You've just hit on one of the main causes of hangnails. Anything that can dry out your skin, such as cold winter weather, harsh chemicals or frequent immersion in water can cause hangnails to develop.

If you are a nail biter, it's likely that you develop more hangnails than your friends who prefer not to nibble on their nails. Besides being bad for your teeth, biting your nails can damage your nail bed, which is the skin underneath the actual fingernail [source: Mayo Clinic]. A weak nail bed can result in more hangnails. Another cause of hangnails is a manicure gone awry -- an inept hand with the nail clippers or frequent cutting of the cuticles can cause hangnails [source: Bruno].

Hangnails that aren't properly cared for can result in an infection called paronychia. There are three types of paronychia infection: bacterial, Candidal -- which is a type of yeast -- and fungal [source: MedlinePlus]. An infection in the skin around your fingernail can be red, swollen and painful, and it may even emit pus.

Now that you know how hangnails happen, you're probably wondering how you can stop them before they start. Keep reading to find out.

Preventing Hangnails

As you now know, it's pretty easy to get hangnails. The good news is that preventing them can also be a snap. In fact, most of the things useful in hindering hangnails are probably already in your home.

One quick and easy preventative measure you can take is to moisturize your hands. If you are prone to hangnails, try applying a lotion or hand crème to your nail beds two to three times a day. Because moisturizing your nail beds helps your nails and your cuticles as well, this simple step can have a big impact on your overall nail health [source: Mayo Clinic].

If you are a nail biter or tend to pick at or bite your cuticles, perhaps it's time to call it quits. Nail biting not only contributes to hangnails, but it also increases your chances of developing an infection or warts. In addition, you can transfer viruses and bacteria that are on your fingers directly into your mouth, leading to illnesses such as colds or flu, or other nasty problems [source: Gibson].

If you're looking for a good excuse to get a manicure once and a while, you've got it! Regular nail maintenance can go a long way toward preventing hangnails. If you give yourself regular manicures, take care not to cut your cuticles. Cut your nails straight across and finish off by gently filing the ends to achieve a slightly rounded corner. If you don't trust yourself with the orange stick, treat yourself to a professional manicure. A short soak in cuticle oil, which is standard practice for most manicurists, can help moisturize the nail bed, also preventing hangnails. In addition, a trained professional can ensure that your nails are trimmed properly and your cuticles are pushed back, not cut [source: Bruno].

If it's too late to avoid a hangnail, don't despair. Instead, visit the next page to learn about treatment options.

Treating Hangnails

If preventative measures are too late in coming and you already have a hangnail brewing, there are some things you can do to treat a hangnail -- and none of them involve ripping, tearing or biting.

If you have a hangnail, the first thing you should do is try to soften it; cutting a dry hangnail can lead to additional skin tearing and start a vicious hangnail cycle. Begin by soaking your finger or fingers in warm water for a few minutes. Then clip the hangnail with cuticle scissors to prevent jagged edges that might tear. After clipping the hangnail, massage some lotion into the nail bed. Continue to do this a few times a day until the hangnail has healed [source: WebMD]. You can also use an antibacterial lotion at the site of the hangnail, and if the hangnail is deep, you might cover it with a bandage until it heals completely.

If you notice that the area around a hangnail has become red, swollen or filled with pus, you probably have an infection. For bacterial paronychia, you can start at home by soaking the area in hot water two or three times a day. If after a few days there is no improvement or the infection has gotten worse, see your doctor -- you may need prescription antibiotics. And in the case of infections that are swollen and pus-filled, your doctor may need to drain the area [source: WebMD]. If you suspect that you have fungal paronychia, consult your doctor immediately. You may need a prescription for anti-fungal medication [source: MedlinePlus].

To learn more about hangnails and other nail conditions, check out the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Sources

  • Bruno, Karen. "Women's Hand and Nail Care." (Accessed 10/6/09)http://www.webmd.com/skin-beauty/advances-skin-care-9/strong-nails-hands
  • Canagas, Joseph E., M.D. "What is a wart?" Illini Pediatrics, LLC. (Accessed 10/7/09) http://www.illinipediatrics.com/files/wart.pdf
  • Gibson, Lawrence E. "Does nail biting cause any long-term nail damage?" Mayo Clinic. (Accessed 10/6/09)http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/nail-biting/AN01144
  • Mayo Clinic. "Common Warts." (Accessed 10/7/09) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/common-warts/DS00370/DSECTION=treatments-and-drugs
  • Mayo Clinic. "Nails: How to keep your fingernails healthy and strong." (Accessed 10/6/09)http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/nails/WO00020
  • Mayo Clinic. "Ingrown Toenails." (Accessed 10/7/09)http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/ingrown-toenails/DS00111
  • MedlinePlus. "Paronychia." (Accessed 10/6/09) http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001444.htm
  • Stedman's Medical Dictionary, 27th Edition, 2000. Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins.
  • WebMD. "Home treatment for a hangnail." (Accessed 10/7/09)http://www.webmd.com/hw-popup/home-treatment-for-a-hangnail?navbar=hw257352
  • WebMD. "Paronychia (Nail Infection)." (Accessed 10/7/09)http://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/paronychia-nail-infection