DEAR DOCTOR K:
I have a painful ingrown toenail. Can I treat it at home, or should I leave it to a professional?
Ingrown toenails can really hurt. They are the best reason I know to regularly trim your toenails.
Most ingrown toenails develop when a corner of the toenail curves down and digs into the skin. There’s usually soreness, swelling, redness and warmth. The area may become infected.
Whether or not you should treat an ingrown toenail at home depends on the severity of your symptoms and whether you have a complicating medical condition.
If your symptoms are minor — the toe is irritated and red, but not infected or very painful — you can try an at-home treatment.
But if you suspect an infection, or if you have diabetes, circulation problems or numbness in the toes, skip the home remedies and see your doctor.
To treat an ingrown toenail at home, soak your foot in lukewarm water two or three times a day for 15 minutes. Massage the skin at the side of the toenail, gently pushing it away from the nail. You want to coax the end of the nail to be out in the open, not pushing down into your skin. This may take repeated soaking and massage. Dry your foot thoroughly, then apply an antibiotic ointment to the affected area and cover it with a Band-Aid.
When the toenail grows out, cut it across in a line that mimics the curving line of the toe tip. Don’t round the corners down. And don’t attempt to dig out and trim the corner of the ingrown toenail yourself.
If your toenail becomes infected or isn’t better after a few days, your doctor or a podiatrist may need to remove the ingrown part of the nail. You may also need to take antibiotics to treat the infection.
If you have repeated ingrown toenails, you may benefit from a procedure in which a narrow vertical strip of your toenail is removed. A chemical can be applied to prevent that part of the nail from growing back.
To prevent future ingrown toenails, wear low-heeled shoes that allow your toes to move freely. Keep your feet clean and dry. Cut your toenails across, going with the curve of the toe (again, don’t round the corners down). And don’t cut your toenails too short. The shorter they are, the easier it is for them to curve downward into the skin of your toe.
Since you live with your toes every day, and your doctor and the foot specialist do not, you can do more to prevent ingrown toenails than they can. You can often fix the problem yourself. The important thing is to know when to call for help.