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Doctor K: OK to deal with ingrown nails at home

Thu., Feb. 23, 2012

DEAR DOCTOR K: I have a painful ingrown toenail. Can I treat it at home, or should I leave it to a professional?

DEAR READER: 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.

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. 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.

To prevent future ingrown toenails, wear low-heeled shoes that allow your toes to move freely. 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.

Dr. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. Go to his website to send questions and get additional information:

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