What to do about that painful ingrown toenail

There are a lot of reasons you keep getting that sore toe, from cutting your toenails wrong, wearing tight shoes and genetics.

Nick Beare 4 minute read January 28, 2022
Wearing shoes that fit properly (giving your toes enough space to move freely) is another way to prevent ingrown nails.

Wearing shoes that fit properly (giving your toes enough space to move freely) is another way to prevent ingrown nails. GETTY

You may have heard the horror stories of the toenail gone rogue: A once normal toenail becomes a painful nightmare as the edges start to curl and pierce the skin.

It’s called an ingrown toenail, and at best, it is very uncomfortable and painful. But at it’s worst, it could mean surgery.

What is an ingrown toenail?

An ingrown toenail is a common condition that occurs when the corners or edges of the nail curve and grow into the skin next to the nail. Though the big toe is most likely to get an ingrown nail, it can happen to any toe. And though they can cause significant pain, ingrown toenails are usually treated quite easily. But untreated, they can lead to a severe infection.

What causes an ingrown toenail?

There are several causes of ingrown toenails, but the most common is improper cutting of the nail. If you cut the nail at an angle on the sides, you may be promoting growth into the skin on either side. The best way to cut your toenails is straight across the top.

Ingrown toenails can also be hereditary — some people are simply born with irregular, curved toenails. Other causes include footwear that is too narrow or tight that restricts the big toe, damage to the toe or nail following an injury and improper foot hygiene (not keeping your feet dry or clean).

Symptoms

Pain or tenderness in the skin on either side of the toe, redness and swelling are the most common symptoms of an ingrown toenail. If the nail pierces the skin, an infection can occur if bacteria enters the area. In this case, the skin may start to grow over top of the nail and the area may feel hot, or have thick, yellowish discharge coming out of it.

How do you prevent an ingrown toenail?

Keeping your feet clean and dry is the first step. Also, clipping toenails properly to encourage proper nail growth is helpful. Make sure to use a toenail clipper (not a fingernail clipper) and cut across the top along the curve of the toe without cutting the nail too short, otherwise, the corners of nail can become embedded.

Wearing shoes that fit properly (giving your toes enough space to move freely) is another way to prevent ingrown nails.

Treating an ingrown toenail

There are several at-home treatments that may ease the discomfort of a toenail that’s embedded in the skin. Soaking your feet in warm water a couple times a day can soften the area and allow you to massage and push the skin at the side of the nail away from the nail. Doing this until the nail starts to grow out will allow you to trim it properly after a few days. And don’t forget to dry your feet thoroughly after each soak.

If the ingrown nail becomes infected, you should see your doctor or a podiatrist who will likely recommend a topical antibiotic and other over-the-counter medicines for the pain.

In some cases, surgery may be required to remove part of the nail. During this procedure, the offending side of the nail is removed from the tip to the nail bed if the part of the nail that is embedded can’t be buffed or trimmed away, according to the Canadian Foot Clinic. In some instances, the entire nail may have to be removed.

And while no one really likes the idea of surgery, the procedure is generally safe. Post-surgery care will usually include keeping your toe clean and dry and wearing loose-fitting shoes for about two weeks after surgery, according to Healthline.

If your toenail is partially removed, you can expect it grow back in three or four months — if the entire nail was removed, growth takes about a year. It’s also possible that it won’t grow back at all.

Nick Beare is a Toronto-based freelance writer. 

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