Whining about a toenail injury might sound a touch dramatic, but hell truly hath no fury quite like an ingrown toenail. The pain of an ingrown toenail can be excruciating, and make you want to rip the thing off or get a pedicure every day for the rest of your life. Luckily, ingrowns are very treatable, and can even be easy to prevent in the first place.
But say you have one: Can you fix it on your own, or do you actually have to go to see a doctor? That depends on how you got the ingrown toenail in the first place, says Leslie Campbell, DPM, a podiatrist in Allen, Texas.
The most common cause is actually hereditary, Dr. Campbell says. "You inherit the curvature of your nail like you do the color of your eyes," she says. But you can also get ingrown toenails due to poor foot hygiene, or because you experienced a foot injury, Dr. Campbell says.
If your first instinct is to just cut out the wayward nail — don't. You might make it worse. "Many times, what happens is people cut their nails very short, so the skin at the toe will become bulbous around the corners," Dr. Campbell says. "As the nail tries to grow forward, it's going to hit this now-rounded skin." Your toenail serves as a flattening mechanism for your toe skin, so if you groom it too short, the skin will adapt to that, and cause an ingrown toenail, she says.
The best way to cut your toenails is straight across, not rounded like the shape of your toe, Dr. Campbell says. Pedicurists tend to cut the nail border back at an angle, but that's not really taking care of the problem, Dr. Campbell says. "What happens is people go back and get the nail trimmed aggressively, so the skin hardens on the edge of the nail and causes problems for the patient," she says. Be careful about messing with your toenails in general, because an ingrown toenail is a medical issue, not just a cosmetic one, she says. If you're in pain, you should definitely go to a podiatrist instead of trying to fix it on your own.
Podiatrists can offer a few solutions for ingrown toenails. "What we do, is have [patients] train the skin at the end of the nail," Dr. Campbell says. They might use adhesive to apply a "splint" underneath the ingrown nail, so it doesn't grow into the skin anymore. Or a podiatrist might numb your toe and cut out the ingrown part of your toenail.
If ingrown toenails run in your family, and you get them repeatedly, you might want to consider a permanent fix, such as surgery, Dr. Campbell says. "When we say 'surgically,' that's foreboding, but it's just a very small removal of a very small portion of toenail, and killing the nail root cell," she says, adding that kids can have it done, too; it's really not a big deal. How it works is a podiatrist would take off a small edge of the toenail, and then cauterize the nail root cell where the cuticle is, so it can't grow back again, Dr. Campbell says: "The success rate is really high, and it provides a lifetime of relief of ingrown nails." Most people are surprised by how easy it is, and wish that they had done it sooner, she says.
What you can do at home to make the pain a little less severe is soak your feet in epsom salt, the doctor recommends. Feet can be pretty dirty, because people don't take time to actually clean their feet when they shower, and she says soaking your toes in salt can help get rid of bacteria under toenails. "Salt kills bacteria, and the skin won't be as inflamed, so a lot of time that will ease the discomfort," she says. There are some OTC treatments available for ingrown toenails, but she cautions that they don't really work.
At the end of the day, ingrown toenails are a pain but treatable, as long as you actually go to a podiatrist to get them fixed. Even if it seems silly to go to a doctor for a toenail, the prospect of never having to endure it again will probably feel worth it. It is sandal season, after all.