Digging Into Ingrown Toenails

by Shoe Digest on August 3, 2011

Ingrown toenails are never fun as they’re often accompanied by an unattractive redness, and very uncomfortable pain at the site. You know that you can get them for injuring your nail, or wearing shoes that bunch your toes together and press on your nails. But what really is an ingrown toenail, and how can you fix or prevent them? We’re glad you asked…

An ingrown toenail is a nail whose corner has started pressing and growing into the soft tissue around it, usually the big toe. This occurs most frequently because of crowding of the toes in too tight shoes and injuries to the nail, but also can occur due to improper trimming of nails. Nails should always be cut straight across with toenail clippers, keeping the length of the nail a little bit longer than the protrusion of the skin on the tip of the toe. Never cut nails into a rounded shape, and never cut them too short. Your skin responds by building up extra tissue around the nail, and/or abscessing in which a yellow looking fluid builds up under the skin. These reactions can often result in an infection of the area. In extreme cases, this infection can penetrate down to the bone beneath and cause a very serious bone infection. This occurrence is somewhat rare, but that is not to say that it is not an ever present danger associated with ingrown toenails.

At their worst, ingrown toenails usually require medical attention by a physician or podiatrist. If you suffer from constantly reoccurring ingrown toenails that continue to progress to stages of infection, it is very likely that your doctor will recommend cutting away the part of the toenail that keeps growing into the skin, as well as removing the tissue beneath to stop the nail from growing. This is extremely unattractive but necessary to relieve your pain. It is also a great motivator to make sure you nip new ingrown toenails in the bud, before they get worse.

Sometimes, when caught early, an ingrown toenail can be treated at home. Mind you some of these methods are not pain free, but they are far better than a surgical type of remedy in which your loose part of your nail. Here are some things you can do at home to treat a new ingrown toenail, or one that has not advanced to infection and is only red and painful (we know, there is no ‘only’ about the pain associated with an ingrown toenail, but you get the gist):

  • First things first, you want to keep the tissue soft. Soaking your feet for 20 to 30 minutes anywhere from two to four times a day in warm water can help keep the tissue around the nail beds soft and pliable so that the nail can continue to grow on it’s natural path. When the tissue around the nail is harder, it can force the nail to follow the softest path through the skin, which is usually underneath.
  • To avoid infections, it’s always a good idea to use topical antibiotic ointments on the site. These are best applied after a good soak, and to keep the ointment in place as long as possible and maintain some suppleness to the skin, applying a bandage never hurts – unless you make it tight, which in this case you shouldn’t do. Another (obvious) way to keep from getting an infection is to wash your feet at least twice a day. Use warm water and soap (the antibacterial kind if you have it, baking soda is a great alternative) and be sure to keep your feet dry and clean for the rest of the day.

These are all great prevention methods as well. If you’re worried about developing an ingrown toenail because you either a) have a family member who has had one (these things are hereditary), b) wear tight shoes often and anticipate this might be a problem in the future, or c) are starting to feel the telltale ‘pinch’, then by all means use the above methods to do your best at prevention. If, however, you have already noticed that your nail REALLY hurts and it is red around the area that is in pain, then you might want to try the following to find some relief:

  • When an ingrown toenail is in the early stages and has not shown signs of infection, a doctor would normally just lift and keep the nail up to help it grow above the edge of skin. The nail can be lifted using an ingrown nail file, or just plain old dental floss (the unwaxed kind). You can try to keep the nail up by simply leaving the floss where it is, or you can insert a sort of cotton splint. To do this, you’ll want to place the cotton under the ingrown edge of the nail after you have thoroughly soaked your feet. Roll the cotton between your fingers to form what looks somewhat like a wick. Place the wick between the affected toenail and the skin to keep the nail elevated. Repeat this after every soak, trying to get the wick a little further in each time. The insertion and keeping the wick in can be the most painful part of this process, but is necessary and often effective. You’ll obviously want to remove the previous wick before soaking, and changing the wick daily is recommended. Continue this process until the redness and pain at the site has subsided, which can be anywhere from seven to 15 days as the nail needs to grow out enough so that it won’t push into the skin anymore.

While treating an ingrown toenail, it is crucial that you do not wear tight fitting shoes – during the process specifically, but eliminating them all together would be ideal. Opened toed sandals are probably going to be your best bet. If you are suffering from some pretty distracting pain from your toe, take Tylenol or Advil to reduce the pain. If the pain is really bad, you’ll want to go see your doctor.

In the case that the pain is becoming unbearable and you’ve noticed that the skin is turning white or building up fluid, it’s definitely time to see your doctor so that he or she may remove the part of the nail that is ingrown. This usually calls for a local anesthetic shot into your toe. You doctor will most likely also recommend a topical or oral antibiotic to treat or eliminate the risk of infection.

Diabetics and those with poor circulation to the lower extremities are especially at risk when an ingrown toenail occurs. If you are either of these, it is important that you check your feet daily for any signs of cuts, ingrown nails, or other foot problems. If you find that you suffer from any of these injuries, it is recommended that you get in touch with your doctor as soon as possible.

The Shoe Digest strongly recommends consulting with your physician to determine your personal health needs.

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