How to Treat an Ingrown Nail

Ingrown nail on man's foot.
Ingrown nails can be painful and can become infected if they are left untreated. See more pictures of skin problems.
© L. Pomares G.

The shoes that look good may not be the ones that feel good, and choosing style over comfort can sometimes cause pain. Ingrown toenails are one of the most common side effects of picking footwear that doesn't really fit your feet.

An ingrown nail curves down and into the surrounding skin as it grows, causing the skin to grow over the nail. Although fingernails can also become ingrown, toenails, especially the big toe, are more susceptible to this condition [source: WebMD].


Ill-fitting shoes are one of the main causes of ingrown toenails. Other common causes include cutting your toenails incorrectly, injuring your toe or heredity. If you were born with nails that are too large for your toes or nails that naturally curve, you may be more at risk of developing ingrown toenails. You can work to prevent ingrown toenails by trimming your nails correctly and wearing shoes that give your toes more room. You should also trim your nails regularly, cutting them straight across the top and rounding the edges, to prevent them from growing too long [sources: Mayo Clinic, WebMD].

Symptoms of ingrown nails include redness, swelling, pain and sometimes pus drainage. You can usually treat an ingrown nail on your own, but your doctor can also perform simple surgical procedures to treat recurrent ingrown nails. If an ingrown nail is left untreated for too long, it can become infected and require antibiotics, so it's best to take steps to remedy an ingrown nail as soon as possible.

If you opted for the stylish instead of the sensible shoes and now have an ingrown nail, you can begin treatment immediately [source: American Podiatric Medical Association]. Read on to learn how to treat an ingrown nail.


Treating Ingrown Nails

Treating an ingrown nail requires time, patience and a few tools, but you can take care of most ingrown nails at home. If the nail isn't infected, one of the most common and effective home remedies is to take a cotton ball or some waxed dental floss and place it under the nail. This separates the nail from the skin into which it's growing. You can use a bandage or medical tape to keep the cotton or floss in place [source: American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons].

To help the healing process and relieve any pain or discomfort, soak the finger or toe with the ingrown nail in warm water a few times a day. When not soaking the nail, keep the area clean and dry. You can also take over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen, to alleviate any pain. While the nail heals, wear comfortable shoes that give your toes room to move -- wearing constricting or ill-fitting shoes not only causes ingrown nails, but also makes them worse. If weather and activity permits, wearing open-toed sandals may be more comfortable than close-toed shoes [source: American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons].


If these home remedies don't help -- or if the ingrown nail becomes infected or becomes a recurring problem, talk to your doctor about treatment options. Your doctor can discuss simple surgical procedures for removing the nail or part of the nail -- never try to remove your toenail without consulting a physician. A doctor will typically remove the nail only partially. Removing the entire nail may enable it to grow back in the same distorted shape, but partial nail removal will prevent the ingrown part of the nail from coming back. The surgery generally can be done as an outpatient procedure with a local anesthetic [source: American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons].

Choosing one of these treatment options should help prevent your ingrown nail from becoming infected. However, if your nail is already infected, keep reading to learn how to treat it.


Treating Infected Ingrown Nails

It seems unlikely that you wouldn't notice an ingrown toenail, but it can happen. People with diabetes or circulation problems are especially likely to overlook an ingrown nail, while others may wait too long to begin treatment. If this happens, the nail can become infected.

An ingrown nail can become infected in a few different ways. First, the overgrowth of the tissue onto the nail can permanently damage the tissue and cause infection. Second, an untreated ingrown toenail may begin to infect the bone that lies beneath it, which can lead to a serious bone infection. An infected ingrown nail is warm, red and swollen, and it may drain pus [sources: Mayo Clinic, WebMD].


If you're worried that your ingrown nail is infected, talk to your doctor. A physician can prescribe topical or oral antibiotics to fight the infection. At home, you can soak your toes in soapy water or salt water and then apply an antiseptic and a sterile bandage. If you have recurrent ingrown nails and infections, you may want to consider having the nail or part of the nail surgically removed [source: American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons].

The most important thing to know about ingrown nails is that they're avoidable. If you wear comfortable shoes and keep your nails -- on both your fingers and toes -- trimmed properly, then you're less likely to develop ingrown nails. If you still develop ingrown nails, treat them immediately and consult a physician if they become infected. For more information on ingrown nails, see the links on the following page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • American Academy of Family Physicians. "Ingrown Toenails." (Accessed 10/06/09)
  • American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. "Ingrown Toenail." (Accessed 10/05/09)
  • American Geriatrics Society. "Foot Problems." May 5, 2005 (Accessed 10/05/09)
  • American Podiatric Medical Association. "Nail Problems." (Accessed 10/05/09)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Ingrown Toenails." March 25, 2009 (Accessed 10/05/09)
  • MedlinePlus. "Diabetes Foot Care." (Accessed 10/06/09)
  • MedlinePlus. "Ingrown Toenail." (Accessed 10/05/09)
  • WebMD. "Understanding Ingrown Nail: The Basics." (Accessed 10/05/09)