Simply put, an ingrown toenail is a nail, typically on the big toe, that grows into the skin instead of over it. But the nagging pain, redness and swelling it causes around your toenail can seem all but simple to deal with when it actually happens - which it does to virtually everybody at some point.
Who gets ingrown toenails? Certain factors make one more likely to develop, including wearing too-tight shoes or cutting toenails too short or not straight across. Some people are predisposed to them, with adults coping with ingrown toenails more often than children and those with curved or thick nails - especially common in older adults - particularly at risk.
"It's believed that about 7 million people in the United States are dealing with an ingrown toenail at any given time, but nail problems in general make up about 10% of all dermatologic conditions," Dr. Papantoniou explains. "Most of the time, an ingrown toenail is just a nuisance. But left undetected or untreated, an ingrown toenail can infect the underlying bone and lead to a serious infection. Ignoring an ingrown toenail ultimately isn't a good idea."
Prevention is best approach As with most health problems, it's always better to prevent an ingrown toenail from happening than to treat it afterward, Dr. Papantoniou notes. With that in mind, she suggests several tips to stop ingrown toenails from developing:
- Cut toenails straight across: While it may seem more attractive to taper toenails into pretty curves, resist the urge. "Cutting nails straight across helps create a separation between the skin and the nail," Dr. Papantoniou says.
- Don't cut toenails too short: Toenails that are cut evenly with the top of the toes are the best length to keep ingrown toenails at bay. "Cutting them too short can drive nails downward into the skin when you're wearing shoes," she says.
- Don't wear tight shoes: Even if they're cute, don't succumb to the urge to wear shoes that pinch your toes or place too much pressure on the tops of your toes. "Also, getting a professional shoe fitting is an especially good idea for those with nerve damage from diabetes or other conditions that make it difficult to feel their feet," Dr. Papantoniou recommends.
Treatments for ingrown toenailsHome-based approaches for treating ingrown toenails usually work swimmingly, Dr. Papantoniou says. These treatments include:
- Switching shoes: Instead of donning shoes that place pressure on the toes, switch to flat shoes with wide foot beds that let the toes "breathe." In the summer, wear sandals whenever possible to expose the feet to fresh air.
- Soaking the foot: Twice a day, soak your feet in a solution of lukewarm water and mild soap for 15 to 20 minutes. "This not only feels good, but it helps clear the skin of pus or other signs of irritation, as well as reduces swelling," Dr. Papantoniou explains.
- Elevating the toenail: After soaking your feet, place bits of gauze, cotton or waxed dental floss under the edge of the ingrown toenail to elevate it and guide it toward growing above the skin.
- Applying antibiotic cream: A little dab of over-the-counter antibiotic cream on clean toes will help reduce redness. Place a bandage over the area before putting on shoes or socks.
Rarely, an ingrown toenail will cause an infection so severe that surgery is required to alleviate it and repair the nail bed so the toenail can once again grow properly. "If home-based measures don't alleviate the pain, swelling and redness around an ingrown toenail, it's time to see a doctor," Dr. Papantoniou says. "Infected ingrown toenails can lead to serious complications, especially for those who suffer from poor blood flow, an impaired immune system or diabetes."
Kally Papantoniou, M.D., is board certified and specializes in dermatology at Advanced Dermatology P.C. Advanced Dermatology P.C. and the Center for Laser and Cosmetic Surgery (New York & New Jersey) is one of the leading dermatology centers in the nation, offering highly experienced physicians in the fields of cosmetic and laser dermatology as well as plastic surgery and state-of-the-art medical technologies. www.advanceddermatologypc.com
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