Ingrown Toenails

What is an ingrown toenail?

When a toenail is ingrown, the sides or corners of the nail curl down and dig into the skin, causing swelling, pain and redness.

What causes an ingrown toenail?

While many things can cause ingrown toenails, the major causes are shoes that don't fit well and improperly trimmed nails. Shoes that are too tight press the sides of the nail and make it curl into the skin. Nails that are peeled off at the edge or trimmed down at the corners are also more likely to become ingrown.

To avoid ingrown toenails, you should cut your nails straight across. The top of the nail should make a straight line.

What is the best treatment for a painful ingrown toenail?

When the problem is mild, you may only need to soak your foot in warm water for 15 to 20 minutes and place dry cotton, such as part of a cotton ball, under the corner of the nail. Signs that the problem is getting worse include increasing pain, swelling and drainage of the area. Sometimes minor surgery is needed to remove the part of the nail that is poking into the skin.

What kind of surgery is performed to fix the toenail?

Your doctor will first numb your toe by injecting it with an anesthetic. Then he or she will cut your toenail along the edge that is growing into the skin and pull out the piece of nail. Finally, your doctor may apply a small electrical charge or a liquid solution to the exposed part of the nail bed. This keeps the toenail from growing into the skin again. This part of the surgery is called ablation, and your doctor will decide whether it needs to be done. Not all patients need ablation.

What should I do to care for my toe after surgery?

  • Soak your foot daily in warm water.
  • Apply antibiotic ointment (some brand names: Bacitracin, Neosporin) to the site at least twice a day.
  • Keep a bandage over the site until it heals.
  • Take acetaminophen (one brand name: Tylenol) or ibuprofen (one brand name: Motrin) as needed for pain.
  • Keep the wound clean and dry. It is okay to shower the day after surgery.
  • Wear loosely fitting shoes or sneakers for the first 2 weeks.
  • Avoid running or strenuous activity for the first 2 weeks.
  • Call your doctor if you have problems with the area, such as increasing pain, swelling, redness or drainage.
  • Avoid high heels and tight-fitting shoes now and in the future.
  • Trim nails straight across. Don't pick at your nails or tear them at the corners.

More Information

For more information talk to your doctor.


Written by editorial staff.

American Academy of Family Physicians

Reviewed/Updated: 05/07
Created: 01/95