How to Prevent (and Treat!) Ingrown Toenails

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One of the more common foot complaints podiatrists see is ingrown toenails, which frequently affect the big toe. They can be painful and definitely can knock the pep out of your step, limiting your ability to accomplish what you need to do. But why do they occur and how can you stop getting nailed with them?

“An ingrown toenail occurs when the sides of a nail grow into the skin surrounding it,” said Joseph Dobrusin, DPM a podiatrist at Banner Health in Arizona. “The skin doesn’t know that the nail belongs to you—all it knows is this is an offending object. This causes an inflammatory response leading to redness, swelling and pain.”

What causes ingrown toenails?

The biggest factor when it comes to ingrown toenails is that they are hereditary, Dr. Dobrusin said. “The shape of people’s nails is a genetic trait, so some people may be genetically predisposed to getting them,” he said.

Another causal factor is improper footwear—meaning tight shoes and socks—which can pinch the toes. Cutting the nail too short at the corners may also be a contributor. In some cases, trauma to the toes or participating in some stop and go type activities (like basketball or tennis) can put undue pressure on your toes and contribute to toe problems.

While you may have read somewhere that pedicures are to blame, Dr. Dobrusin says nail technicians shouldn’t necessarily be to blame. “In most reputable, clean places, they do a good job of properly cutting nails,” he said. “Just make sure you aren’t having them cut your nails too short.”

Ways to treat ingrown toenails at home

For a mild ingrown toenail, meaning you have some slight tenderness and swelling, sometimes you can simply treat at home. You can:

  • Soak your feet in warm water or apply a warm, moist compress to your offending toe until the nail is flexible (And no, a shower won’t count).
  • Dry your feet and between your toes thoroughly to avoid sweat or dampness.
  • Place a clean wedge or any straight splitter under the edge of the nail to help lift it up away from the skin. Apply antibiotic ointment to the area when you’re done.
  • Wear open-toed shoes or shoes with a large toe box.
  • Take OTC pain reliever to help reduce mild tenderness and swelling.

If these steps don’t do the trick, and your toe is red, tender or oozing, this could be a sign of infection and will require a trip to your doctor or podiatrist (foot specialist). You may require an oral antibiotic if you have an infection, and your doctor may need to remove the ingrown part of the toenail with a local anesthetic.

How are recurring ingrown toenails treated?

If you have recurrent ingrown toenails and home remedies aren’t cutting it, your doctor may recommend removing the nail and tissue with a procedure called a chemical matricectomy with phenolization.

“In healthy patients, those with no comorbidities, it’s one of the best and most commonly performed procedures we have—still after 50 years,” Dr. Dobrusin said. “You go into the section of the nail that is causing the problem and take it out and apply 90 percent phenol that causes a chemical burn and prevents the nail from regrowing.”

While it can’t 100 percent guarantee you won’t have any toe problems in the future, it is likely your toe will be much improved.

Nailed it! 3 ways to prevent ingrown toenails

In medicine, the saying goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Three ways to help prevent ingrown toenails include:

Use proper nail cutting techniques

Clip your toenails (straight across and not too short) using toenail clippers, not fingernail clippers or scissors.

Avoid ill-fitted shoes AND socks

Wear shoes that fit properly and have a good size toe box that allow your toes to rest flat. And slip on moisture-wicking socks that allow your toes to move around freely.

Check your feet

Don’t forget to check in with your feet on a regular basis for ingrown toenails or other foot problems, especially if you are prone to ingrown nails or have diabetes.

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