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How to Fix (and Prevent) an Ingrown Toenail

High Angle View Of Sore Toe Nail On Floor
Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock

Ingrown toenails are one of the most common problems people can have with their nails. And, unlike some issues, they’re also too painful to ignore.

Fixing an ingrown toenail will save you from the pain, so you can get back to your regular activities. If you get ingrown nails often, you need this guide. But even if it’s a rare occurrence for you, these treatment and prevention ideas will help make it even rarer.

Read on to learn how to free yourself from the pain of ingrown toenails for good!

What Is an Ingrown Toenail?

Ingrown toenails happen when the nail starts growing straight into the flesh of your toes, rather than over the top. While this problem is most common on the big toe, it can technically happen to any of them.

If you have an ingrown toenail, you’ll notice swelling, redness, and pain in the affected area. This can make it difficult to walk, run, or wear specific shoes. And if you let an ingrown toenail go untreated, it will only get worse, and possibly lead to an infection.

This problem has lots of possible causes. Some people are genetically more likely to get them. Having thick or curving toenails makes ingrown nails more likely. In some cases, a fungus can be the culprit. It’s also possible to get them because your shoes don’t fit right, because you had an injury, or because you didn’t cut your toenails the right way.

Anyone with numbness or blood flow issues in the feet needs to be especially proactive about treating ingrown nails. If your feet are numb, you might not notice the problem until it becomes infected, which puts you at risk of severe complications, or even amputation.

Treating Your Ingrown Toenail

Man soaking his feet in a washbowl
Sinisa Botas/Shutterstock

You can usually start by treating an ingrown toenail at home, especially if it’s minor.

Important: If you have severe pain or suspect an infection, or if you have a disorder (like diabetes) that can restrict blood flow to your feet or make them numb, make the time to see a doctor right away.

Begin by soaking your feet in warm water for about 20 minutes to reduce the pain and swelling. Once the affected area feels a little bit better, try to push the nail’s edge above your flesh. You can use dental floss to move it or pack a bit of cotton under the nail, so it’s in the right place. Again, avoid this step and see a doctor if you’re in a lot of pain, or are at risk for infection.

To prevent infection, use an antibiotic ointment on the affected area, especially if the skin is broken. Put a bandage over it before you put your socks and shoes on.

You might also switch to sandals temporarily to avoid putting pressure on the healing area. However, be very careful that you don’t further damage the exposed nail while you’re wearing open-toed shoes.

You can use over-the-counter medications to treat the pain and inflammation while the toenail grows out. With these steps, you should be able to get the toenail to grow away from the flesh over time.

Again, if this doesn’t work, or you have a severe case, you’ll need to get treatment from a medical professional. Your doctor may prescribe oral antibiotics, or even surgically remove part or all of the affected nail. 

How to Prevent Ingrown Nails

It’s much easier, and less painful, to prevent ingrown nails than to treat them. Luckily, prevention is pretty simple.

To keep them from coming back, start by making sure you wear shoes (and socks) that fit correctly. If your shoes are so tight that they press down on your nails, you’re more likely to get ingrown nails. High heels, in particular, can contribute to the problem.

Next, pay attention to how you cut your nails. Don’t cut them too short, and cut them straight across rather than trying to cut them in rounded shapes at the corners. You can always use a file to shape them a bit, instead.

Finally, avoid injury by wearing protective footwear if you do activities that could damage your toenails. Ingrown nails are a painful problem, but if you stay proactive, you can keep them from coming back.

Elyse Hauser Elyse Hauser
Elyse Hauser is a Seattle-based writer and editor with a Master's in Writing Studies from Saint Joseph's University. Her work has appeared in publications like Racked, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and Rum Punch Press. She was awarded a 2017 Writing Between the Vines residency.  Read Full Bio »

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