Is My Toe Infected?

Your toe is red, swollen, and sore. Could it be infected?

Toe infections are common -- especially in people with diabetes or a weakened immune system. Knowing what caused your infection can help you figure out whether you can treat it yourself, or you need to call a doctor.

What Causes an Infected Toe?

An infection in the skin around the toenail is called paronychia. It’s normally caused by a bacterium. The toenail can also be infected with a fungus.

If your toe is infected, one of these things might be to blame:

  • You cut the nail too short, or you cut the cuticle around the nail.
  • You have an ingrown toenail (the side of your nail grows into the skin).
  • You've picked up a fungus, which you can get if you walk barefoot in common areas like a gym shower or locker room.
  • You have a callus -- thickened skin caused by rubbing (for example, when your toe rubs against your shoe).
  • You put your feet in water a lot (for example, if you swim a lot).

You're more likely to get an infected toe if you have diabetes. Damage to your blood vessels from high blood sugar can make it harder for your body to fight off infections. And diabetic nerve damage can prevent you from feeling minor trauma that could lead to a toe infection.

If you have a weakened immune system, you’re also more likely to get toe infections. This includes people with HIV, or those who've had an organ transplant.

What Are the Symptoms?

You might have an infected toe if you notice:

Diabetes can prevent you from feeling that you might have an infection, so check your feet every day. Look for redness, swelling, pus, and other signs of infection.

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When to See Your Doctor

Make an appointment with your primary care doctor or a podiatrist (foot specialist) if the redness, swelling, and other symptoms don't go away with home treatment. See your doctor right away if:

  • You have a fever or chills
  • You notice red streaks on the skin leading away from the infected area
  • Your joints or muscles hurt

Your doctor will examine your toe. You might need tests to find out what type of bacteria or fungus caused the infection.

Get regular checkups from your podiatrist if you have diabetes, so you can find infections and other problems early. See the doctor more often if you have any known foot problems, like an ingrown toenail.

How Is a Toe Infection Treated?

If bacteria caused the infection, an antibiotic cream or pill can clear up the problem. Fungal infections are treated with antifungal pills or cream. You can buy antifungal medicines over the counter or with a prescription from your doctor.

To treat an ingrown toenail, your doctor might lift the nail and place a piece of cotton or a splint underneath it. This will help the nail grow away from your skin. If lifting doesn't work, the doctor can remove part or all of the affected nail.

Sometimes the infection can cause a pus-filled blister to form. Your doctor might have to drain the blister.

You can also try these remedies at home:

  • Soak the toe for about 15 minutes in a bathtub or bucket filled with warm water and salt. Do this three to four times a day.
  • Rub a medicated ointment on the toe and wrap it in a clean bandage.
  • To treat an ingrown toenail, gently lift the corner of the nail. Place a small piece of cotton or waxed dental floss underneath to hold the nail away from your skin.

You’ll also want to protect your toe while it heals. To help it heal properly, wear loose, comfortable shoes that don't rub. Keep your foot dry, and change your socks every day.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on April 14, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

American Academy of Family Physicians: "Paronychia."

American Diabetes Association: "Foot Care."

Cleveland Clinic: "How You Can Stop Foot and Toenail Fungus In Its Tracks."

Diabetes New Zealand: "Infections."

Fairview: "Ingrown Toenail, Infected (Antibiotics, No Excision)."

Mayo Clinic: "Ingrown toenails: Overview," "Ingrown toenails: Treatment."

Nemours Foundation: "Infections: Paronychia."

Wound Care Society: "How to treat infected toe at home without antibiotics?"

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