Ingrown toenail infection: symptoms, treatment, causes

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Ingrown toenails are very common. In fact, it’s estimated that 20 out of 100 people who visit their health care provider for foot problems have an ingrown toenail.

Due to the irritation and pain it causes, most people notice an ingrown toenail right away. Treating it early is essential to help manage inflammation and prevent infection.

When an infection is present, it is always important to speak with your healthcare provider or podiatrist to discuss treatment options. However, there are well-known home remedies that can help ease the pain.

This article explains what to do if your toenail is infected and ingrown and when to see a medical professional.

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Symptoms

An ingrown toenail occurs when one or both sides of the nail begin to grow into the soft skin of the toe. One of the first signs of an ingrown toenail is pain around the affected area.

In addition to pain, signs and symptoms of an infected ingrown toenail include:

  • Discharge of fluid or pus
  • Warm to the touch
  • Pink or red color
  • Swelling
  • Stench

Stages of ingrown toenail severity

Stage 1: The nail has grown into the skin causing pain and inflammation.

Stage 2: New inflamed tissue grows around the edges of the ingrown toenail. This can lead to drainage or pus.

Stage 3: The skin surrounding the nail is chronically inflamed and oozes pus. Inflamed tissue begins to grow on the nail.

causes

Many things can cause ingrown toenails. The most common cause of ingrown toenails is improper nail trimming. Cutting your nails too short can result in skin on the sides covering the corners of the nail. This causes the nail to grow into the skin.

Other common causes of ingrown toenails include:

  • Ill-fitting shoes (too tight or too narrow)
  • Toe injuries
  • Deformities of the toes or feet
  • Cut your nails in a rounded shape (they should be cut straight)
  • Regular physical activity or practice of a sport
  • Nails that are too big for your toes (genetic predisposition)

Risks

The biggest risk associated with an ingrown toenail is infection. Paronychia, which is usually caused by ingrown toenails, is an infection of the skin around a fingernail or toenail. The infection can make the skin very swollen and painful. A pus-filled blister may also begin to form.

Paronychia often occurs when the skin around a nail is injured or irritated. This can cause bacteria to enter the nail and cause bacterial paronychia.

If detected early, the condition can be treated at home. In rare cases, the infection can spread through the toe and into the bone. This is known as osteomyelitis.

A person with diabetes, nerve damage, or poor blood circulation may be more prone to infections because their wounds heal more slowly.

A hard-to-treat infection can lead to gangrene, which causes tissue to die due to a lack of blood supply. This condition often requires surgery or amputation.

Processing

There are several things you can do at home to help relieve the pain and discomfort caused by an ingrown toenail.

Soak in Epsom salt

Try soaking your foot in warm salt water for 20 minutes. To make salt water, fill your bath water enough to soak your toe. You can also use a clean bucket. Add 1-2 teaspoons of Epsom salt to hot water. Repeat this two to three times a day to relieve discomfort. If it’s too painful, reduce the amount of Epsom salt or just soak in warm water.

Separating nail edges with dental floss

After soaking your foot, place a piece of cotton or dental floss under the corner of the nail that pushes into the skin. Put antibiotic ointment on the affected area twice a day to help prevent infection.

You can also take over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil) to reduce inflammation and discomfort.

Keep your feet dry

Aside from daily soaks, your feet need to stay dry. You should also wear loose shoes or sandals to prevent the area from becoming more irritated.

You should never attempt to trim an ingrown toenail yourself. It can be very painful and lead to serious infection.

When to See a Health Care Provider

Call your health care provider if your condition does not improve within a few days. When ingrown toenails cannot be treated at home, your healthcare provider may refer you to a pedicurist or podiatrist, who can determine the best treatment option for your toenail.

Treatments your healthcare provider may recommend include:

  • Surgery to remove part of the nail (partial nail avulsion)
  • Prescribe antibiotics
  • Cut the ingrown part of the nail

If your healthcare provider thinks the infection has spread, they may order a blood test. They may also order an MRI, X-ray, or bone scan.

Summary

Most ingrown toenails are not serious and resolve on their own with a foot bath, antibiotic ointment, and lifting the nail from the affected area. Although rare, an infection can become serious and cause serious problems. If you don’t notice any improvement after a few days, you should speak with your healthcare provider to discuss treatment options.

A word from Verywell

Ingrown toenails are painful and embarrassing. Fortunately, there are steps you can take at home to relieve pain and inflammation and help you get back on your feet. Once your ingrown toenail has resolved, it is essential to maintain good foot hygiene to prevent recurrences.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What does an infected ingrown toenail look like?

    An infected nail often appears red, swollen and painful to the touch. The toe may also drain fluid or pus.

  • Can you stop an ingrown toenail?

    Most ingrown toenails can be treated at home by simply soaking your feet in warm salt water, applying antibiotic ointment, and flossing under the edge of the ingrown toenail.

  • Is it possible to numb your toe in order to remove the ingrown toenail?

    If a severe infection is present, your healthcare provider will numb your toe to remove the ingrown part of the nail. This should only be done by a licensed medical professional.

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