How To Deal With Ingrown Toenails: Tips and Treatment Options

Ingrown toenails are a common but painful condition that can affect people of all ages. When the edge of a toenail grows into the surrounding skin, it can lead to redness, swelling, and significant discomfort. While anyone can experience this issue, those with curved or thick toenails are particularly susceptible. This comprehensive guide aims to provide you with everything you need to know about ingrown toenails, from identifying symptoms to exploring treatment options, both at home and in a medical setting.

What Are Ingrown Toenails?

According to Healthline, an ingrown toenail occurs when the edge of a toenail, usually on the big toe, grows into the surrounding skin. This ingrowth can cause inflammation and pain, and, if left untreated, may result in infection.

Anatomy of a Toenail

Understanding the basic anatomy of a toenail can offer insights into how and why ingrown toenails develop. A toenail consists of the nail plate (the hard part we generally consider the nail), the nail bed (the skin beneath the nail plate), and the grooves that guide the edges of the nail. When the nail plate grows abnormally into the surrounding skin, that’s when an ingrown toenail occurs. The condition can become particularly problematic if the ingrown portion cuts into the skin, as this opens a pathway for bacteria, leading to infection.

Causes of Ingrown Toenails

Genetics and Natural Nail Shape

Your genetics can play a significant role in determining the shape and curvature of your toenails. Some people are born with nails that are more rounded rather than flat, making them more prone to ingrown toenails. The condition can run in families, so if your parents or siblings have had ingrown toenails, there’s a chance you could develop them too.

Footwear and Lifestyle Choices

Your choice of footwear can also contribute to the development of ingrown toenails. Tight-fitting shoes or high heels that press your toes together can force the nail to grow into the surrounding skin. Athletes, particularly those who engage in sports that put a lot of pressure on the feet like soccer or ballet, are at higher risk. Additionally, improper foot hygiene and care, such as cutting your nails too short or rounding them, can make you susceptible to this condition.

Identifying Symptoms of an Ingrown Toenail

Early Signs

The early symptoms of an ingrown toenail are generally easy to identify. You may experience slight pain when pressure is applied to the affected toe, along with redness and swelling at the corner or side of the nail according to Health Direct. The area might also feel warm to the touch. It’s essential to recognise these early symptoms to treat the condition before it progresses into something more serious.

Advanced Symptoms

If left untreated, an ingrown toenail can lead to more severe complications. Advanced symptoms may include increased pain, even when not walking, pus or discharge from the affected area, and overgrowth of skin around the nail, known as hypergranulation. At this stage, it’s crucial to consult a healthcare professional to prevent the condition from turning into a severe infection or other complications.

At-Home Treatment Options for Ingrown Toenails

Warm Water Soak

One of the most effective at-home treatments for ingrown toenails is a warm water soak. Fill a basin with warm water and soak the affected foot for 15-20 minutes. This will help to soften the skin and nail, making it easier to treat. You can also add Epsom salts or antibacterial soap to the water for added benefits.

Over-The-Counter Solutions

There are several over-the-counter products specifically designed for treating ingrown toenails. These may include topical antibiotics to prevent infection and specialised pads or cushions to alleviate pressure on the affected toe. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions and consult a healthcare provider if you’re uncertain about which product is right for you.

When to See a Doctor

Persistent Pain or Infection

If the pain from your ingrown toenail is severe, persistent, or accompanied by signs of infection like pus, fever, or spreading redness, it’s crucial to seek medical advice immediately. Ignoring these symptoms can lead to more severe complications, including deep tissue infection or even bone infection.

Complications with Pre-existing Health Conditions

For individuals with diabetes, peripheral vascular disease, or other conditions that affect circulation, even minor foot problems like ingrown toenails can lead to serious complications. In such cases, prompt medical attention is crucial.

Recurring Issues

If you’ve successfully treated an ingrown toenail at home, but it recurs frequently, this is a sign that professional intervention is needed for a more long-term solution.

Professional Treatment Options

Doctors have several methods for treating persistent or severe ingrown toenails. This could include surgical removal of part or all of the affected nail, a course of prescription antibiotics for any accompanying infection, or a procedure to correct the nail’s growth pattern. These treatments are generally quick and have high success rates, but they do require professional medical evaluation and treatment.

Surgical Options for Severe Cases

Partial Nail Avulsion

What It Involves:

A partial nail avulsion is one of the most common surgical procedures for treating ingrown toenails that have become painful, inflamed, or infected. During the procedure, the affected toe is numbed using a local anesthetic. A tourniquet is then applied to control bleeding, and the ingrown edge of the toenail is carefully lifted and cut away.

Recovery and Aftercare:

This is an outpatient procedure, which means you can usually go home the same day. Post-operative care is essential for a smooth recovery. You will likely need to soak the toe daily, apply antibiotic ointment, and use a sterile bandage for some time. The healing process typically takes a few weeks, during which you should avoid tight-fitting shoes to prevent further irritation.

Success Rate and Risks:

Partial nail avulsion has a high success rate and is effective at alleviating pain and resolving infections. However, there is a risk of the ingrown toenail recurring if post-operative care is not diligently followed. Potential complications include infection, excessive bleeding, and adverse reactions to anesthesia, although these are relatively rare.

Total Nail Removal

What It Involves:

Total nail removal, or complete matricectomy, is reserved for severe or recurring cases of ingrown toenails. This procedure involves the removal of the entire toenail under local anesthesia. It’s a more radical approach that aims to allow a new, healthier nail to grow in place of the old one.

Recovery and Aftercare:

The recovery period for total nail removal is longer, often taking several weeks to months for the toenail to regrow fully. During this time, diligent wound care is essential. Your doctor will likely provide you with a detailed post-operative care plan, including how to clean the wound, how often to change bandages, and what type of footwear to avoid.

Success Rate and Risks:

While total nail removal is often effective at permanently resolving recurring ingrown toenails, it comes with its own set of risks. These may include prolonged healing time, the possibility of the new nail also becoming ingrown, and the risk of infection. As with any surgical procedure, complications related to anesthesia can also occur.

By consulting with a podiatrist, you can determine which surgical option is most appropriate for your condition. Always follow the prescribed aftercare to minimise risks and encourage successful healing.

Post-Surgical Care: How to Speed Up Healing and Prevent Recurrence

After undergoing a surgical procedure to treat an ingrown toenail, your post-operative care is vital for successful healing and preventing future occurrences.

Proper Dressing and Cleaning

Follow your healthcare provider’s instructions for cleaning and dressing the wound. Usually, you’ll need to clean the area with warm water and mild soap, apply an antibiotic ointment, and cover it with a sterile bandage.

Pain Management

Your healthcare provider will likely recommend over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen to help with pain management. Always check with your doctor for medication recommendations tailored to your individual needs.

Activity Restrictions

Avoid rigorous activities that put pressure on your toes, and try to keep your foot elevated whenever possible. Stick to wearing open-toed shoes or those with a wide toe box until the toe is fully healed.

Frequent Check-ups

Regular follow-up appointments with your healthcare provider are crucial for tracking your progress and catching any potential complications early on.

Long-Term Prevention Strategies

Proper Nail Cutting Technique

One of the key preventive measures for ingrown toenails is learning the correct way to cut your toenails. Always use a pair of clean, sharp nail scissors or clippers and cut the nail straight across. Do not round the corners, as this can encourage the nail to grow into the skin.

Footwear Choices

The shoes you wear can also influence your risk of developing an ingrown toenail. Opt for footwear that provides ample room for your toes to move. Tight, narrow shoes, or high heels can compress the toes and increase the likelihood of a nail growing into the surrounding skin. Opt for comfortable, well-fitted shoes with a wide toe box to give your toes the space they need.

Conclusion: Taking Control of Your Foot Health

Ingrown toenails, though seemingly minor, can escalate into painful and complicated conditions if not appropriately managed. From understanding the causes to knowing when to seek professional medical advice, this guide aims to arm you with all the information you need to deal with this common but often distressing problem. Whether you choose at-home remedies, medication, or surgical options, remember that your path to recovery starts with a good understanding and proactive management of your condition.

Frequently Asked Questions

What causes ingrown toenails?

Ingrown toenails are often caused by improper toenail trimming, wearing tight-fitting shoes, or having naturally curved toenails. Other factors like injury, fungal infections, or genetics can also contribute to the problem.

Can I treat an ingrown toenail at home?

Yes, mild cases of ingrown toenails can often be managed at home using warm water soaks, antibiotic ointment, and over-the-counter pain relief. However, if the condition worsens or shows signs of infection, it is crucial to seek medical advice.

When should I see a doctor for an ingrown toenail?

You should consult a healthcare provider if you experience severe pain, redness, swelling, or signs of infection like pus discharge. Also, seek medical advice if at-home treatments do not improve the condition within a few days.

What is a partial nail avulsion?

A partial nail avulsion is a minor surgical procedure where the ingrown portion of the toenail is removed to alleviate pain and facilitate healing. It’s usually done under local anesthesia as an outpatient procedure.


Will my toenail grow back after total nail removal?

Yes, in most cases, the toenail will regrow after total nail removal. However, the regrowth process can take several weeks to months and may require careful aftercare to prevent complications.

Are there any complications associated with surgical treatments?

While surgical treatments are generally safe, complications like infection, excessive bleeding, or allergic reactions to anesthesia can occur. Always follow your healthcare provider’s post-operative care instructions to minimise these risks.

Can ingrown toenails be prevented?

Yes, ingrown toenails can often be prevented by adopting good foot hygiene, wearing properly fitting shoes, and trimming your toenails straight across rather than rounding the edges.

What kind of doctor should I see for ingrown toenail treatment?

For ingrown toenails, you can initially consult with a general physician. However, for more specialised care, it is recommended to see a podiatrist, a doctor specialising in foot and ankle care.

Is it safe to use over-the-counter creams or ointments for ingrown toenails?

Over-the-counter treatments can be effective for mild cases but should not replace professional medical advice, especially in the case of severe ingrown toenails or those showing signs of infection.

Can lifestyle choices like diet and exercise affect ingrown toenails?

While lifestyle choices may not directly cause ingrown toenails, a healthy diet and regular exercise can improve overall foot health and immunity, potentially reducing the risk of infection.

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