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How to handle an ingrown toenail

Whether you flaunt your feet in summer sandals or hide them away in winter boots, your toes need proper care. When a toenail becomes irritated, improperly trimmed or misshaped, it can lead to an ingrown toenail.

What is an ingrown toenail?

An ingrown toenail is a foot condition that develops when the toenail corner grows down into the skin. 

“Ingrown toenails are usually painful areas at either side of a toenail because the edge of the toenail is ‘growing into’ the flesh at the side of the nail,” said J. Marshall Devall, MD, a podiatrist on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White Clinic – Temple South Loop.

Ingrown toenail symptoms include:

  • Pain and tenderness
  • Inflamed skin
  • Swelling
  • Infection

What causes an ingrown toenail?

There are numerous ways an ingrown toenail can strike. When the area around your nail becomes red or there is a wound present, you will know something is wrong.

Ask yourself:

  • Did I cut my toenail too short? If your nail is too short, it can dig into the skin
  • Did I cut my toenail straight across? It’s best to follow the natural curve of your toe
  • Am I wearing shoes that put too much pressure on my toe? Wearing high heels, pointed-toe shoes or shoes that are too small can aggravate the toenail
  • Do I get an ingrown toenail often? You may have a chronic issue where your toenail is too thick or misshaped
  • Did my toenail rip? A torn or ripped nail can cause jagged edges that bother the skin
  • Am I wearing the right athletic shoes? Ingrown toenails are commonly seen in athletes, including runners who are on their feet often

The do’s and don’ts of ingrown toenail care

There are a lot of myths and home remedies surrounding proper care for toenails, ingrown toenails and feet in general, Dr. Devall said.

Here’s what not to do when it comes to ingrown toenail care:

  • Don’t shove cotton under the edge of an ingrown toenail. It   can cause a nasty infection or foreign body reaction
  • Don’t cut a “V” in the center of the toenail to take pressure away from the sides
  • Don’t bother using liquid topical preparations to soften the toenail. They do nothing to help treat the ingrowth, Dr. Devall said.

Don’t buy into the myth that oral antibiotics will cure your ingrown toenail.

If you’re in pain, don’t worry. There are things you can do to get relief.

“It is always a good idea if you are limber and have the appropriate nail clippers (not fingernail clippers) to trim the pointy nail edge away from the flesh gently,” Dr. Devall said. “This trimming will ease the foreign body reaction.”

When to see a doctor for an ingrown toenail

Is the pain getting worse? Do you have trouble wearing shoes? Do you see or suspect an infection? A podiatrist can help you get back on your feet with the proper treatment.

“Most people are unaware of the options available for dealing with toenail issues,” Dr. Devall said.

Often, a very painful ingrown toenail can easily be trimmed using small nail clippers by a trained podiatrist without even requiring the toe to be numbed.

If you need to be numbed, your toe can be anesthetized at the base of the toe, away from the pain in your toenail. The side of your toenail that hurts or the entire toenail can also be removed temporarily or permanently using a chemical process that kills the nail growth.

“All of these procedures are easily done in the podiatry clinic and the patient can be back in shoes and back to work the next day,” Dr. Devall said.

Remember: ingrown toenails are usually a reaction from a foreign body and not an infection, which means the simple incisions or drainage that the podiatrist performs is the proven treatment method, not oral antibiotics. If you’ve been hassling with an ingrown toenail for a while, it is time to get help.

“Podiatrists are well trained in toenail care and are able to provide an almost painless procedure to resolve even the most stubborn ingrown toenails permanently,” Dr. Devall said.

Find a podiatrist near you.

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How to handle an ingrown toenail