Toenails are generally pretty innocuous. They’re rarely threatening (except, of course, when toenail clippings fly across the room like tiny bits of organic shrapnel at slightly less than the speed of sound). Usually, toenails grow straight out, keeping a nice noninterference policy with the rest of the toe. There are times, however, when nails begin to turn on you. One or both of the sides or corners of the nail begin to curve downward into the toe, causing the skin around the nail to become irritated and painful. At times, the nail may even penetrate the skin, letting in bacteria that decide that the toe is a fabulous place to live (and these are guests you definitely don’t want to have around).
There are many possible causes or contributing factors for ingrown toenails. If you have a family history of malevolent nails, or if you have nails that already seem to curve down on the sides, you may be susceptible. Pressure on your toes from too-tight shoes or socks may also lead to ingrown toenails, as can trauma (like stubbing your toe on the corner of your bed in the middle of the night, dropping a brick on your foot, or kicking a soccer ball (or bowling ball, for that matter) a bit too hard). Certain nail conditions, such as fungal infections in your nail bed may also contribute.
Improper trimming of your toenails may also be a significant factor. Cutting nails too short (you should be able to get your fingernail under the sides and end of your newly trimmed toenail) or trimming down the sides of the nail (you should trim straight across) can lead to problems. Peeling or tearing the corners of the nail can also be harmful.
Oh. And keep in mind that, while ingrown toenails most commonly occur on the big toe, any toenail may be affected.
Your first clue that your nail has gone from friendly to malicious is inflammation around your toenail. This will manifest itself as pain, warmth, redness, and swelling. You may also develop a callus along the side of your nail in response to an increase in pressure from your ingrown toenail and the associated swelling. Or, it’s possible that you’ll just have a toenail that appears to go pretty deeply down into your skin. If an infection develops, things usually get a little more nasty. You may notice drainage accompanied by a bad smell, and there may be a collection of pus. (Yes. It’s pretty gross.)
At the first appearance of these signs you must go to your nearest podiatrist. Stay tuned for the next installment to discuss what you podiatrist will do to help.