What Is an Ingrown Toenail?

The common foot problem can be annoying but rarely dangerous.

Ingrown toenails are incredibly painful and, while easy enough to treat, can potentially be dangerous if one becomes infected. Ingrown toenails are also very common. About 20 out of every 100 people who visit their healthcare provider to get help with a foot-related issue have an ingrown toenail.

While many people may have an ingrown toenail once or twice, for others, ingrown toenails are recurring. The good news? There are simple treatments for both sporadic and chronic ingrown toenails. 

Here's everything you need to know about ingrown toenails, including why they happen, the symptoms they cause, and what treatment options exist.

Ingrown toenail
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What Is an Ingrown Toenail?

An ingrown toenail forms when the edge of the nail grows into the skin around the toenail.

Paul Greenberg, DPM, a foot and ankle surgeon at NYU Langone Health, told Health that ingrown toenails could occur on any toe. That said, they're most commonly found on the big toe.

What Causes Ingrown Toenails?

Many things can cause ingrown toenails, including:

  • Nails that are cut too short or are rounded at the corners
  • Wearing shoes that are too small
  • Sweaty feet
  • Being unable to cut the toenails properly due to poor eyesight or not being able to reach the toes

Anyone can develop an ingrown toenail. But some people may get them because of the shape of their toenails, Wenjay Sung, DPM, a Los Angeles-based podiatrist, told Health. Additionally, injury to the toenail and bacterial buildup caused by dirt, sweat, or dead skin cells can also cause an ingrown toenail.

Since the shape of the toenail can increase the risk of an ingrown toenail, there might be a genetic component to the condition, added Dr. Sung. So, the condition could run in families.

What Are the Symptoms of an Ingrown Toenail?

Primarily, ingrown toenails cause swelling and redness. But the first thing people usually notice is pain around the toenail, explained Dr. Greenberg. 

That pain might feel like something's cutting into the skin, added Dr. Sung added. 

Also, patients might notice pus and drainage near the toenail. You might also see skin discoloration if the wound has become infected.

How Are Ingrown Toenails Treated?

Some people can treat ingrown toenails at home, Dr. Sung said. If you have an ingrown toenail, the following treatment may help relieve symptoms:

  1. Soak your foot in Epsom salt for five minutes, then allow the toes to air dry.
  2. Gently massage the inflamed area.
  3. Wet small cotton or dental floss in water or antiseptic, and place it under the toenail.
  4. Repeat those steps twice a day.

However, Dr. Sung recommended seeing a healthcare provider if you have diabetes or a nerve problem affecting the foot. Specifically, podiatrists are trained to treat the ingrown toenail without worsening it. A dermatologist, a physician specializing in the care of skin, hair, and nails, can also address ingrown toenails.

In a podiatrist's office, the methods used to treat ingrown toenails are simple enough, explained Dr. Sung. Treatments include soaking the foot, trimming the ingrown toenail, and applying topical antibiotics. 

Keep in mind: Seeing a healthcare professional is crucial when you think you have a severe or recurring case of ingrown toenails. In that case, you may require a more intense treatment than usual. For example, partial nail avulsion includes:

  • Numbing the affected toe
  • Cutting out the strip of the toenail that's growing into the skin
  • Waiting for the toenail to regrow, typically within two to four months

Additionally, if you have ingrown toenails frequently, your healthcare provider might suggest a chemical matricectomy. During the procedure, your healthcare provider cauterizes the nail's matrix, destroying it. Removing the section of the nail that continuously grows into the skin helps solve the problem.

Fortunately, the procedure sounds a little worse than it is. According to Dr. Greenberg, it doesn't require any bedrest, and people can return to their usual activities as soon as the day after the procedure.

While you should ideally see a podiatrist for an ingrown toenail, you might need to go to urgent care if the pain and redness are intense, which may indicate infection. In that case, you would need additional treatment, so it doesn't spread to other areas of your body.

How Can You Prevent Ingrown Toenails?

There are a few simple steps you can take to avoid ingrown toenails, including:

  • Wear properly fitting shoes that are neither too tight nor too loose.
  • Soak your foot in warm water before trimming your toenails, so the nail softens beforehand.
  • Use clean tools to clip your toenails.
  • Trim the toenails straight across. Don't cut them too short or round the corners.
  • Don't pick at your toenails.

A Quick Review

Ingrown toenails happen when the edge of a toenail grows into the surrounding skin. Wearing tight shoes or cutting your toenails too short or with rounded edges increases your risk of ingrown toenails.

Luckily, ingrown toenails are common and can be simple to treat. But for severe or recurring cases, or if you have a medical issue that affects your feet, like diabetes, you should see a podiatrist. 

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Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Ingrown Toenail: Overview. Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG); 2018.

  2. National Library of Medicine. Ingrown toenail.

  3. Gera SK, PG Zaini DKH, Wang S, Abdul Rahaman SHB, Chia RF, Lim KBL. Ingrowing toenails in children and adolescents: is nail avulsion superior to nonoperative treatment?Singapore Med J. 2019;60(2):94-96. doi:10.11622/smedj.2018106

  4. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/imagepages/9471.htm#:~:text=An%20ingrown%20toenail%20is%20a,and%20swelling%20around%20the%20toenail.

  5. Muriel-Sánchez JM, Becerro-de-Bengoa-Vallejo R, Montaño-Jiménez P, Coheña-Jiménez M. The Treatment of Ingrown Nail: Chemical Matricectomy With Phenol Versus Aesthetic Reconstruction. A Single Blinded Randomized Clinical TrialJ Clin Med. 2020;9(3):845. doi:10.3390/jcm9030845

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