This common foot issue 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. They're also very common—two out of every 10 patients who visit their doctor to get help with a foot-related issue have an ingrown toenail, according to Cleveland Clinic.

While many people may just have an ingrown toenail once or twice, for others, ingrown toenails recur. The good news is there are simple treatments for both sporadic and chronic ingrown toenails. Below, you'll find everything you need to know about ingrown toenails, including why they happen, the symptoms they cause, and what treatment options exist.

Ingrown toenail
Credit: Getty Images

What is an ingrown toenail?

An ingrown toenail is formed when the edge of the nail grows into the skin around the toenail, according the US National Library of Medicine (MedlinePlus). Ingrown toenails can occur on any toe, Paul Greenberg, DPM, a foot and ankle surgeon at NYU Langone Health, tells Health. That said, they're most commonly found on the big toe, per MedlinePlus.

Close up of ingrown toenail is Inflamed fingernails
Credit: Adobe Stock

What causes ingrown toenails?

While anyone can have an ingrown toenail, some people may get them because of the shape of their toenails, Wenjay Sung, DPM, a Los Angeles-based podiatrist, tells Health. Additionally, injury to the toenail and bacterial buildup (caused by dirt, sweat, or dead skin cells), can also cause an ingrown toenail, Dr. Sung says, adding that not trimming your toenails properly can lead to one as well.

Since the shape of the toenail can contribute to the formation of an ingrown toenail, there might be a genetic component to the condition, Dr. Sung says, explaining that the condition could run in families.

What are the symptoms of an ingrown toenail?

According to MedlinePlus, the following are symptoms of ingrown toenails:

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Redness

The first thing people usually notice is pain around the toenail, Dr. Greenberg says. That pain might feel like something's cutting into the skin, Dr. Sung adds, explaining that, in addition to the above symptoms, patients might notice pus and drainage near the toenail.  You might also notice skin discoloration if the wound has become infected, Dr. Sung says.

How are ingrown toenails treated?

Some people are able to treat ingrown toenails at home, Dr. Sung says, explaining that you can do this by removing the edge of the toenail that's pushing into the skin and soaking your foot in Epson salt for five minutes twice a day. However, Dr. Sung recommends seeing a doctor, preferably a podiatrist, if you think you have an ingrown toenail, since they're trained to treat the toenail without making it any worse.

In a podiatrist's office, the tactics used to treat ingrown toenails are simple enough, Dr. Sung explains. These include soaking the foot, trimming the ingrown toenail, and applying topical antibiotics, he says. However, it's crucial to see a doctor the moment you suspect you have an ingrown toenail, because severe cases require more severe treatment, namely a surgical procedure. This involves a podiatrist anesthetizing the toe, then cutting out the strip of toenail that's growing into the skin.

If you have ingrown toenails frequently, your doctor might suggest a procedure known as a chemical matricectomy, Dr. Greenberg says. The purpose of the procedure is to cauterize the matrix of the nail, he adds, explaining that removing the section of the nail that continuously grows into the skin should solve the problem. Fortunately, this sounds a little worse than it is: It doesn't require any bedrest, and patients can usually do whatever activity they want by the day after the procedure, Dr. Greenberg says.

While you should ideally see a podiatrist for an ingrown toenail, you might need to go to an urgent care in a severe case, if pain and redness are intense, Dr. Sung says. That could be an indicator of infection, and would need additional treatment so it doesn't spread to other areas of your body.

How can you prevent ingrown toenails?

There are a couple of simple steps you can take to avoid ingrown toenails, per MedlinePlus. First of all, make sure your shoes fit properly (are neither too tight nor too loose), and that the instrument you use to clip your toenails is clean. MedlinePlus also advises soaking your foot in warm water prior to trimming your nails so that the nail softens a bit beforehand.

When you do clip them, make sure to trim straight across, without rounding the corners of your nails, and don't cut them too short. Additionally, avoid picking at your toenails, MedlinePlus advises.

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