Ingrown Toenails: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment, Complications & Look Like

Ingrown Toenails

Ingrown Toenails Topic Overview

An ingrown toenail is a painful condition of the toe. It occurs when a sharp corner of the toenail digs into the skin at the end of or side of the toe. Pain and inflammation at the spot where the nail curls into the skin occurs first.

  • If left untreated, an ingrown toenail can progress to an infection or even an abscess that requires surgical treatment.
  • Ingrown toenails are common in adults but uncommon in children and infants. Any toenail can become ingrown, but the condition is usually found in the big toe.

Causes of Ingrown Toenails

The warm, moist environment of the feet can be a breeding ground for bacteria and fungi. These commonly include Staphylococcus, Pseudomonas, dermatophytes, Candida, and Trichophyton. When there is a break in the skin from the offending nail border, these organisms can invade the area and cause an infection. Treatment for these infections is essential to maintain healthy toenails and feet.

What does an Ingrown Toenails look like?

In the early stages, the skin next to the nail may be tender, swollen, or hard.

When the nail pierces the skin, bacteria can get in, resulting in infection. The area affected becomes red, swollen, warm, and painful. There may be bleeding and pus.

Anyone with symptoms of infection should seek medical help, either a primary care physician, orthopedic surgeon, or foot care specialist, known as a podiatrist.

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Ingrown Toenails Symptoms and Signs

An ingrown toenail is a common disorder that most often affects the outer edges of the nail of the big toe. However, the nail on any toe can become ingrown. The most common signs and symptoms are pain, redness, and swelling at the margins of a toenail.

  • Early in the course of an ingrown toenail, the end of the toe becomes reddened and painful with mild swelling. There is no pus or drainage. It may feel warm to the touch, but you will not have a fever.
  • Later, extra skin and tissue will grow around the sharp point of the nail. A yellowish drainage may begin. This is the body’s response to the trauma of a nail irritating the skin and is not necessarily an infection.
  • Sometimes an infection develops. In this case, the swelling will become worse, and there may be white- or yellow-colored drainage (pus) from the area. A lighter-colored area of the skin may be surrounded by red skin. A fever may develop, although this is unusual.

Complications of Ingrown Toenails

Left untreated or undetected, an ingrown toenail can infect the underlying bone and lead to a serious bone infection.

Complications can be especially severe if you have diabetes, which can cause poor blood flow and damage nerves in your feet. So a minor foot injury a cut, scrape, corn, callus or ingrown toenail may not heal properly and become infected. A difficult-to-heal open sore (foot ulcer) may require surgery to prevent the decay and death of tissue (gangrene). Gangrene results from an interruption in blood flow to an area of your body.

Treating Ingrown Toenails

Left untreated, an ingrown toenail can become infected, so it’s important that you:

  • keep your feet clean by washing them regularly with soap and water
  • change your socks regularly
  • cut your toenails straight across to stop them digging into the surrounding skin
  • gently push the skin away from the nail using a cotton bud (this may be easier after using a small amount of olive oil to soften the skin)
  • wear comfortable shoes that fit properly

Surgery may be recommended if your toenail doesn’t improve. Depending on the severity of your symptoms, this may involve removing part or all of your toenail.

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