How to Prevent and Treat Nail Problems

Medically Reviewed by Debra Jaliman, MD on December 20, 2022
3 min read

It’s easy to take your nails for granted, especially if you’re not into manicures and pedicures. But if you don’t take care of them, your nails can get out of hand.

Keep these do's and don’ts in mind to stop nail problems before they start.

If it’s your habit to just rinse and go, it’s time to rethink how you wash your hands. Germs can collect under your nails. You should scrub them with soap every time you wash your hands. Give yourself bonus points if you use a nail brush.

Biting your nails can make you sick by giving cold-causing viruses an express ticket into your mouth. And if you happen to puncture or tear the skin, it sets you up for ingrown nails or infection.

Got a hangnail? Cut it off. Don’t bite or rip it.

Bacteria and fungi thrive in moist environments, plus waterlogged nails are more likely to split. When you’re done at the sink or in the shower, dry your hands and feet thoroughly.

Pull on a pair of gloves when you clean or wash dishes. Wear socks and shoes made of breathable material and change them often, especially if the insides feel damp and sweaty.

The healthiest nails are cut short and straight across. Long nails are more likely to break and tear, and bacteria can live under them.

When you trim your toenails, don’t cut too deeply along the sides of them, or it could lead to an ingrown toenail.

Nails too thick and hard to cut? Soak them in salt water, then smooth on a cream that contains urea or lactic acid to soften them.

If they’re too small or too big, or too narrow and tight, it can cause problems like ingrown nails. Shoes that rub can cause blisters or sores that can get infected.

Does the salon have a license? Does it look clean and sanitary? Do the workers sterilize their instruments before each manicure or pedicure, or else toss them after every use? Do they wash their hands between clients?

The answers should all be “yes.”

Already see signs of fungus? Skip the mani-pedi. If you trap an infection under a coat of polish it can get even worse.

If you go to nail salons often, it pays to bring your own tools and polish, and disinfect them at home. You’ll know for sure those clippers, buffers, and brushes are clean and they’ve only touched your own hands and feet.

The skin around your nails acts as a natural defense system that keeps germs from creeping in and causing an infection.

So leave your cuticles alone. If you visit a salon, make sure your nail technician does, too.

Fungus can easily spread on the floors of gym locker rooms, public showers, pools, and steam rooms. Never go barefoot when you’re in an area where lots of people shed their shoes.

If your nails are discolored, it’s a good idea to check in with your dermatologist. Melanoma, a type of skin cancer, can grow underneath your nails, and dark spots or streaks could be a warning sign.

You should also check with a doctor if your nails or the skin around them are painful, inflamed, draining pus, or your nails thicken or change shape.

It’s especially important to treat infected or ingrown nails if you have diabetes or other conditions that affect your circulation or immune system.