Ingrown toenails are perhaps the most annoying health issue in existence. Why evolution didn’t sort this problem out millions of years ago is a total mystery. After all, humans and their ancestors have had nails for eons. Biology obviously couldn’t figure it out!
Leaving an ingrown toenail to resolve itself, however, isn’t usually an option. Not only is it highly uncomfortable, but it is also prone to infection – something that can cause serious harm (especially for those with diabetes).
The good news, though, is that there are a bunch of remedies that you can apply at home. Here are some of the things that you can do before calling the doctor’s office.
Soak Your Feet In Warm Water
It may sound elementary, but soaking your feet in warm water is one of the best ways to alleviate ingrown toenails. Some people add soap and Epsom water, but there’s no evidence that this makes a difference, according to Harvard Health.
The primary effect of soaking is to reduce the inflammation around the toe. As the nail digs into the toenail bed, it punctures the skin, causing a swelling. The pressure from both this and the open wound causes pain.
Treating ingrown toes with warm water is easy. Here’s what to do:
- Fill the bath or a tub with warm water deep enough to cover your toes completely.
- Leave your feet to soak for between 15 and 20 minutes.
- While soaking, massage the skin around the affected toe gently and try to push it away from the softened nail.
- After soaking, dry your foot thoroughly to prevent infection.
Try The Dental Floss Technique
If soaking alone doesn’t work, then you can try using the so-called “dental floss technique” popularized by the Mayo clinic. The idea here is simple. After each foot-soaking session, patients should place a strand of cotton dental floss between the nail and nail bed, creating a barrier that stops it from digging in.
There is, however, some debate as to whether this method actually works. Some health professionals argue that bacteria present in the cotton may make inflammation and pain worse if they come into contact with an open wound. The sensible approach, therefore, seems to be to soak the dental floss in an antibacterial agent before you apply it, preferably alcohol.
So how do you apply it? Let’s take a look.
- Soak your foot in warm water for at least five minutes.
- Take a cotton swab and use it to push the softened nail upwards gently.
- Take the floss and insert it diagonally between the nailbed and the nail. (Always soak your floss in an antiseptic agent, such as alcohol, before applying it).
- Regularly replace the floss and add extra if the nail continues to push into the surrounding toe.
Apply Antibiotic Ointment And Gauzes
Ingrown toenails have the nasty habit of penetrating the skin around the nail bed, providing microbes with an opportunity to get in and cause infection. When this happens, pus starts exuding from the wound.
For years, doctors prescribed antibiotic ointments – creams that the patient would apply directly to the ingrown toenail to kill off the infection and reduce swelling. But now the state-of-the-art technique is to impregnate a gauze with broad-spectrum antibiotics and use that to create a barrier between the nail and the underlying skin – a treatment concept similar to the dental floss idea above. By creating an obstacle, the nail has no choice but to grow in the correct direction.
Wear Looser Shoes
While we might want to blame the failures of evolutionary biology for the scourge of ingrown toenails, the truth is that many cases are the result of lifestyle factors. Improperly-fitting shoes are one of the biggest culprits, leading to thousands of cases every year.
Wearing poorly-fitting shoes fundamentally changes the structure and shape of the toes and feet. The chronic wearing of pointed footwear encourages the toes to turn inwards, which then alters the direction in which nails grow. The crowding of toes – or extrinsic compression as leading researchers call it – places pressure on the nail wall. With enough force and the passage of time, you ultimately wind up with ingrown toenails.
Interestingly, the problem doesn’t seem to be with the nail itself, but the surrounding tissue. Researchers, for instance, suggest that tight shoes cause the tissue surrounding the nail to bunch up and deform. As the nail grows, it has no choice but to push through the surrounding tissue, causing the problem patients.
Fortunately, you can usually correct the problem by changing your footwear. Where possible, wear shoes that do not put inward pressure on your toes or compress your big toe against your second toe. Try to wear open-toed shoes whenever the weather allows. And avoid tight-fitting socks at all costs.
Get Some Pain Relief
Remember how we said that ingrown toenails tend to cause a lot of inflammation and pain? Well, it turns out that it can aid healing if you can dial both of these down.
Inflammation is usually a helpful response. It creates a cushion between the damaged tissue and the outside world, preventing further injury while the body carries out repairs. Unfortunately, there’s comparatively little space between the toenail and toe, so the swelling can make things worse. Excessive inflammation in a small volume can compress and damage the surrounding skin and harm the blood supply.
It makes sense, therefore, to take painkillers – specifically non-steroidal anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen (sometimes called Advii or Nurofen). Analgesics like this can reduce the swelling and make it easier for you to apply the other curative methods discussed above.
Of course, if you have a particularly severe case, these remedies may not work. In that circumstance, you should go to the doctor’s office. They can refer you for ingrown toenail surgery – a procedure that involves removing a strip of toenail along the side of the nail bed, preventing it from digging into your foot in the future.
So, in summary, ingrown toenails are a pain (literally!), but one you can treat immediately.
Dr. Engel has been providing outstanding care to his patients in the Southeastern Wisconsin Community for the past decade and a half specializing in foot and ankle lower extremity disorders.