Ingrown Nails: Symptoms, Treatments, and Prevention

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on March 20, 2023
4 min read

Ingrown nails happen when your nail grows into your skin instead of over it. This happens more with toenails than with fingernails, especially your big toe.

When one of your nails starts growing into the skin, you typically have symptoms in stages. First, you’ll have: 

  • Swelling
  • Tenderness
  • Hardness

If your ingrown toe gets infected, you’ll move on to other symptoms including:

  • Redness
  • Pus coming out of your toe
  • Bleeding
  • Pain
  • Feeling hot or shivery

You’re more likely to get ingrown nails when you:

  •  Cut your toenails too short
  • Round your nail edges. To avoid ingrown nails, always trim straight across.
  • Wear ill-fitting shoes or tight hosiery that press your nail into your toe
  • Injure your toe by stubbing or jamming it
  • Put repeated stress on your toes from poor posture or physical activity that stresses your feet, such as running, ballet, or soccer
  • Inherit genes that make you more likely to have them

If the condition causing the ingrown toenail continues, the skin that grows over your nail can lead to permanent changes in the tissue that can cause infection, more pain, and more swelling.

If your ingrown nail isn’t infected, you should be able to treat it at home. To manage symptoms, you can:

  • Soak your feet. Reduce swelling and tenderness by putting your feet in warm water for 15-20 minutes three to four times a day.
  • Keep your feet dry. Let your feet breathe to avoid sweat or dampness.
  • Use a wedge to lift your nail. Put dental floss or a small piece of cotton under the edge of your nail to help lift it as it grows out. Change it out daily.
  • Apply antibiotic cream. Cover your toe with a bandage afterward to help protect it.
  • Pick helpful shoes. Choose open-toed shoes or shoes with plenty of room in the toe. Don’t wear heels.
  • Take pain relievers. Over-the-counter options like acetaminophen or  ibuprofen can help reduce tenderness and swelling.

If your symptoms don’t get better -- or get worse -- after you try home care, your doctor may need to treat the problem. They may try:

  • Prescription antibiotics. You may need oral or topical medication to help get rid of your infection.
  • Lifting the nail. If your problem is mild and doesn’t involve pus, your doctor can use a splint to lift your nail and set it in a new position to help it grow above the skin.
  • Removing some of your infected nail. Your doctor will numb your toe before surgically cutting away the part of the nail that’s growing into your skin.
  • Removing all of your infected nail. If you keep having ingrown nails on the same toe or finger, your doctor may take off your whole nail. it can take up to 4 months to grow all the way back in. And it’s more likely to be misshapen once it grows back. 

Proper grooming is the first step in preventing ingrown nails.

  • Soak your feet first to soften the nails.
  • Always cut the nail straight across using nail clippers, and leave enough nail to cover the toe to protect it. (Do not use scissors, which are difficult to manipulate in the corners of the nail.) Smooth sharp edges with an emery board.
  • Wear socks and shoes that fit properly. Be aware that tight, pointed, high-heeled shoes and tight stockings can cause ingrown nails by putting pressure on the toes.
  • Parents should groom young children's nails. An older relative may need help, too, because of weakened vision and greater difficulty reaching their feet.

If you have diabetes, vascular problems, or numbness in your toes, you need to take special care to treat and prevent ingrown toenails. And don’t put off getting treatment. Ingrown nails that go untreated for a long time can make the problem more severe.

Complications that can develop include:

  • Bone infection
  • Foot ulcers
  • Gangrene (decaying tissue). This is rare.
  • Losing a limb