How to Treat a Hangnail

Hangnails are extra tags of skin that can flake off of your nail bed, near your fingernails. They are caused by a number of environmental factors or personal habits, including:

  • Using nail polish remover frequently
  • Very hot or very cold temperatures
  • Soaking your hands in water for too long (like when you’re washing dishes)
  • Coming in contact with harsh chemicals
  • Brittle nails from a weakened immune system
  • Dry hands

Even though hangnails are small injuries, they can cause pain and irritation, making it hard for you to do daily tasks.

How Not to Treat a Hangnail

When you have a hangnail, it can be tempting to rip it or bite it off. That’s a bad idea for a couple of reasons. Biting your hangnails can introduce bacteria from your mouth to the area, and that bacteria can lead to an infection. It can also introduce bacteria from your hands into your mouth. These bacteria could cause you to get sick.

Ripping at your hangnail can be just as bad. When you trim your hangnail the wrong way, you can rip off live tissue and increase the amount of time you’re in pain.

What should you do when you have a hangnail?

Treat a Hangnail by Reducing Excess Skin

Although biting or ripping your hangnail is not the best way to do it, removing the extra skin around your hangnail is a good instinct. By reducing the amount of excess skin, you lower your chances of snagging your hangnail throughout the course of the day and increase your body’s ability to heal the injury.

To cut a hangnail safely, use clean fingernail clippers to cut the hangnail as close to the nail bed as possible.

Cutting your hangnail back should be your first step when treating it. After you’ve cut the hangnail down in size, you can try a warm water soak or antibiotic cream to continue to treat the area.

Treat a Hangnail With a Warm Water Soak

If a hangnail is painful or has started to get infected, you can treat the area using a warm water soak.

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Start by filling a bowl with warm water and soaking your affected nail 2 to 4 times daily for 15 minutes at a time.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), bottled water is the safest choice for all uses because it is free of contaminants. If you don't have bottled water on hand, your second-best option is to boil your tap water and then cool it to an acceptable temperature. Boiling water kills the types of organisms that hide in water — including bacteria, viruses, and parasites — that you wouldn't want to accidentally expose to your bloodstream through your injured nail bed. 

Treat a Hangnail With an Antibiotic Cream

Another option for treating hangnails on your own is to use an over-the-counter antibiotic cream on the area once daily. After you cover the hangnail with antibiotic cream, wrap your finger in a bandage to help the cream stay in place and to prevent bacteria from getting into your hangnail while it heals.

In addition to using an antibiotic cream on the hangnail itself, it’s a good idea to wash your hands and clean underneath your fingernails.

Brittle nails and hangnails can be the result of infectious bacteria. By cleaning underneath your nails and treating the area with an antibiotic ointment, you can prevent the area from becoming reinfected and worsening as a result.

Hangnail Risks and When to See a Doctor

Hangnails are injuries to your nail bed, and like all injuries, hangnails can become infected. Infections near fingernails have a special name — paronychia — and they can be painful.

Sometimes, paronychia causes pus and swelling around the site of the injury. This pus may need to be drained by a doctor to cure the infection. Other times, the infection can be treated with some of the same treatments you use for hangnails, including warm water soaks and antibiotic cream. It may be time to talk to your doctor for hangnail treatment if you have any of these signs of infection:

  • Swelling around your nail bed
  • Blisters or pus around your fingernails
  • Discoloration of your nail or finger
  • Weakness in your fingernails

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Preventing Hangnails is the Best Treatment of All

In a perfect world, you’d never get a hangnail. While that may not be realistic, there are ways to prevent hangnails and reduce how often you do get them. Using good nail hygiene by washing them and moisturizing them with lotion, especially in the winter months, may help you maintain healthy nail beds.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on April 19, 2021

Sources

SOURCES:

Beacon Health System: “Paronychia.”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Making Water Safe in An Emergency."

Harvard Health Publishing: “Paronychia.”

Mayo Clinic: “Do’s and Don’ts for Healthy Nails,” “Mayo Clinic Q and A: Self-Care Can Strengthen Weak Fingernails.”

© 2020 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.

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