Painful Foot Problems: Ingrown Toenails

A woman examines her foot for an ingrown toenail.

What is an ingrown toenail?

An ingrown toenail occurs either when the nail grows into surrounding skin or the skin grows over the edge of the nail. Ingrown toenails commonly occur as a result of trimming toenails with tapered edges instead of cutting nails straight across. As the nail begins to grow, it may curl under and dig into the skin or the skin may infringe upon the nail. The skin around an ingrown toenail may be red and swollen, causing pain. Severe cases may ooze pus.

A man’s nails being trimmed to prevent an ingrown nail.

What causes a nail to become ingrown?

Ingrown toenails occur most commonly as a result of trimming toenails improperly. Rounding the edges of toenails instead of cutting them straight across creates areas that may later grow into skin. Shoes that are too tight, especially in the toe box, can also encourage curved nail growth into the skin. A person's posture, gait, and any structural abnormalities of the feet (hammertoes, bunions, and foot pronation) may also affect one's tendency to develop ingrown toenails. Having broken, brittle toenails may leave you with sharp nail edges that can grow into skin.

A painful and swollen toe with red skin from an ingrown toenail.

What does an ingrown toenail look like?

Ingrown toenails cause redness and swelling around the affected toe area. The site may be painful to the touch. An infection may develop if the condition progresses, and the area may ooze pus. Treating ingrown toenails as soon as possible reduces the risk of both infection and the possibility of needing foot surgery. The question on most people's minds after recognizing that they have this condition is, “How do you get rid of ingrown toenails?”

A medical illustration of a toe and a cream treatment remedy for an ingrown nail.

Treatment for Ingrown Toenails: Over-the-Counter

A number of over-the-counter treatments for ingrown toenails are available. These topical nail products may contain botanical ingredients like menthol and tea tree oil to decrease inflammation. Other topical agents may contain salicylic acid, which relieves pain and softens nails. Over-the-counter remedies should not be used by those who have diabetes, poor circulation, or an infection of the foot.

A person taking a foot bath to remedy an ingrown nail.

Ingrown Toenail Home Treatment Do's

Do try to coax a stuck toenail out from beneath overgrown skin by soaking the affected foot three to four times a day. Dry the foot well and wear comfortable shoes that do not crowd the toes until the area is healed. Insert a very small wad of cotton or waxed dental floss between the nail and the skin to encourage separation. Change the packing material every day. Take over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen to minimize discomfort. It's important to seek medical treatment if the condition becomes worse or doesn't improve with home treatment within 2 to 3 days.

A man examines his foot for a nail infection.

Ingrown Toenail Home Treatment Don'ts

Don't fall for the home treatment that alleges an ingrown toenail can be cured by cutting a V-shaped wedge into the top of the nail. Proponents claim this encourages nail growth toward the center of the nail, instead of at the sides where the problem is located. This simply isn't true. All nail growth occurs from the base of the nail toward the top of the toe.

A woman’s feet with bandaged big toes from ingrown toenail surgery.

Ingrown Toenail Surgery

When home remedies aren't enough to treat an ingrown toenail or the condition is associated with severe pain or infection, surgery may be necessary. Depending on the extent of the problem, a doctor may remove part of the nail, part of the affected nail bed, and some of the surrounding affected tissue. In extreme cases, the doctor may remove part of the growth center from which the nail grows.

A woman changes out of painful shoes to comfort sore feet.

Ingrown Toenail Surgery Recovery Tips

After ingrown toenail surgery, treat the affected toe and foot with care. Apply antibiotic ointment and take over-the-counter pain medication as directed by your doctor. Keep the surgical area dry and dress the wound as directed. Ask the doctor when it is okay to bathe and follow the doctor's directions. For at least the first 2 weeks after surgery, wear tennis shoes or other comfortable footwear. Avoid strenuous physical activities like running while healing. Notify the doctor if increased drainage, redness, swelling, or pain develops.

A woman stands among her collection of open toe shoes.

Ingrown Toenail Prevention: Set Your Toes Free

Tight or ill-fitting shoes are a common cause of ingrown toenails. Cull your shoe closet and discard high heels and shoes that are too tight, especially in the toe area. Wear sandals when you can and wide-toed shoes to minimize the risk of developing ingrown toenails. Proper foot and nail care is the key to preventing an ingrown nail!

A woman shops for shoes that can support the foot and have a wide toe box.

Ingrown Toenail Prevention: Shoe Shopping Tips

Wearing appropriate footwear is one of the best ways to decrease the risk of ingrown toenails. Feet swell during the day, so it's best to shop for shoes later in the day when feet are at their largest. Choose shoes that have shock-absorbing soles that help reduce pressure on the feet, especially the toes. Breathable materials, such as leather and canvas, are preferred. Wear shoes with socks to minimize friction and cushion feet.

A man getting a foot bath and professional nail care.

Ingrown Toenail Prevention: Nail Care

Trim toenails in a way that minimizes the risk of developing ingrown toenails. Cut toenails straight across with a clipper. Do not attempt to shape toenails into an oval shape. This leaves rounded nail edges that may later grow into the skin. Don't trim toenails too short. Toenails serve a function to help protect the toes. If toenails are hard to trim, soak feet in warm water first to soften them. There are also over-the-counter creams containing lactic acid or urea that make nails softer and easier to trim. Tending to toenails properly today is the best way to prevent ingrown toenails tomorrow.



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  • American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: “Ingrown Toenail”
  • The Doctors Book of Home Remedies, 20th edition: “Ingrown Nails: 7 Feet-Treating Methods”
  • “Ingrown Toenails - Treatment”
  • The Society of Chiropodists & Podiatrists: “Ingrowing Toenail”
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