Ingrown toenails, known technically as onychocryptosis, often begin as a dull ache deep in the toe. Soon, the toe swells, and the pain may become intense. For some people, ingrown toenails give rise to a painful infection. For others, they merely make walking miserable for days or weeks.
In severe cases, ingrown toenails may even require surgery. In most cases, however, they go away on their own. Here’s what you need to know about treating and managing this painful condition.
What Is an Ingrown Toenail?
An ingrown toenail is when part of the toenail, usually the corner, grows into the skin. It can cause intense pain and swelling, and it may become infected. Depending on how deeply the nail grows into the skin and whether a person has any serious medical conditions, the nail can either heal on its own or become infected. Severe infections can be intensely painful. Left untreated, they can even become life-threatening — especially in people who have diseases that weaken their immune system.
Symptoms of an ingrown toenail include:
- Pain on either side of the nail, which often starts as mild burning or tingling, then gets progressively worse over several days
- Swelling and redness on one side of the toe
- Pus oozing from the side of the toenail
If the toenail becomes severely infected, you may see red streaks extending away from the toe, develop a fever, or notice more widespread swelling around the toe.
What Causes Ingrown Toenails?
Anyone can develop ingrown toenails. Some people naturally have toenails that tend to grow in a curved shape, increasing the likelihood that they grow down into the nail bed and become ingrown.
Certain risk factors increase the likelihood of a developing an ingrown toenail. They include:
- Wearing very tight or pointy-toed shoes.
- Playing a sport that puts a lot of pressure on the toes. For instance, ballet slippers can increase the risk of an ingrown toenail.
- Cutting toenails very short or in a curved shape.
- Injuring the toe or toenail.
Home Treatment for Ingrown Toenails
Internet advice for treating ingrown toenails is readily available, but it is not always reliable. Many websites recommend cutting into the nail bed or packing the toenail. While this might work for some people, it can also injure the toe and increase the risk of infection. So don’t try to cut the nails or put gauze under the toenail. Instead, try the following:
- Soak the foot in warm water or Epsom salt several times each day.
- Avoid putting pressure on the toenail. Wear shoes as infrequently as possible, and when you must wear shoes, ensure they fit.
- Don’t get a pedicure or cut your toenails until the ingrown nail resolves.
If you can see the edge of the nail, wash your hands and then lift the toenail up out of the skin, either using your fingers or sterile tweezers. Then try putting either a thin piece of gauze or a band-aid under the edge of the nail to prevent it from growing back into the skin. If you can only access the nail with scissors, you should leave it alone.
Medical Treatment and When to See a Doctor
A doctor can often relieve an ingrown toenail and drain the infection in just a few minutes. Rarely, a severe ingrown toenail might require surgery. If the toenail is infected or you have a serious underlying medical condition that makes infection likely, you might need to take antibiotics.
See a doctor for an ingrown toenail if:
- You have diabetes or HIV/AIDS, or you are taking immunosuppressants.
- The ingrown toenail doesn’t go away on its own in a few days.
- The toenail is so painful that it interferes with normal activities.
- You can’t walk without intense pain.
- There are signs of an infection, such as a fever, severe swelling, or a bad smell coming from the toe.
To prevent ingrown toenails:
- Avoid tight, painful shoes. Consider wearing shoe inserts if you spend long periods of time on your feet.
- Trim your toenails straight across, rather than a curved shape.
- Don’t cut into the nail bed or allow anyone else to do so. Some nail salons promise to treat ingrown toenails by cutting the nails at an angle or digging into the nail bed. This method is likely to cause infection.
- Don’t allow the toenails to grow too long, especially if you have a history of ingrown toenails. You should also avoid trimming the toenails very short.
- Check your feet daily if you have diabetes, a circulatory disorder, or any other condition that increases the risk of foot health issues.
Ingrown toenails are painful, but a few lifestyle changes can lessen their risk of occurring. If you struggle with chronic ingrown toenails, a quick chat with a doctor can help you understand what’s causing them and what you can do to prevent them.