As a medical student, I owned two badly in-growing toenails. They hurt like fury. I needed several minor ops to remove the ingrowing spikes, and the injection to numb the toes hurt even more. Then came the application of caustic silver nitrate to kill the proud flesh (granulation tissue) which left me in tears.
Nothing seemed to stop the ingrowing toenail from stubbornly returning. Eventually, the only option left was to have the nails totally removed and the nail base killed with phenol to stop the nail every reappearing. I didn’t want that as it would leave what I imagined would be an ugly nail-less stump: no more flip-flops, sandals, baring my feet or wearing toenail polish.
So, I experimented and worked out a way to solve the ingrowing toenail problem for myself. It works a treat on all patients I’ve recommended it to. It has even stopped my own teenagers from experiencing the agony I went through – whenever they get the first painful signs of an ingrowing toenail, they know to use mum’s trick which I’m sharing below.
What is an ingrown toenail?
An ingrown toenail develops when a spike of untrimmed nail starts to grow into the soft, tender flesh on at least one side of the nail. This acts as a foreign body and triggers an inflammatory reaction with redness, pain and swelling. Infection is common, too, and pus may seep from the wound. Ingrowing most often affects the big toes and often occurs on both sides.
What causes an ingrowing toenail?
Some people inherit nails that are naturally prone to growing inwards, but the usual cause is trimming the nails downwards at the corners, rather than straight across. Ingrown toenails can also occur after damaging the nail by stubbing your toe, or if the nail is damaged due to a fungal nail infection. The problem is exacerbated by picking at the nails (which removes hardened areas of skin (callus) that can build up to help protect soft flesh from the protruding nail. Wearing tight-fitting shoes can also cause a poorly trimmed nail to grow inwards by squeezing the flesh against the toenail. This is an especial problem with high heels as these push your weight forward onto your big toe.
Ingrown toenail treatment at home
An in-growing toe nail can usually be treated at home quite easily. NB If you have diabetes, always have your ingrown toenail treated professionally – you have an increased risk of infection setting in.
First, bathe your foot in a warm, diluted antiseptic solution for 15 to 20 minutes to soften the flesh and treat any superficial infection. This is a really important step to soften and cleanse the tissues. You can use a tea tea oil disinfectant for this, but dilute as instructed – don’t use neat oil. I use a blend of teatree and lavender oil which smells nicer, but any antiseptic will do. Avoid anything that contains alcohol which will sting and bring tears to your eyes. I also use a foot spa to soak my feet for this step, making foot care a pamper treat!
This is the simple trick that cured my ingrowing toenails forever: Carefully tuck a small wisp of cotton wool under the ingrowing corner of the nail using the point of a blunt (not sharp!) pair of scissors or, even better, an ingrown toenail file. This cotton wisp acts as a cushion to push the tender flesh away from the nail and allow it to grow out normally. The first time you do this, you will need to gently tease the softened flesh away from the nail, and will only be able to tuck a few strands of cotton wool behind the ingrowing corner. Just a tiny bit will do. It may throb and hurt initially due to the new increased pressure – if this is too uncomfortable, remove the cotton wool and replace with a smaller wisp.
You could apply Scholl Ingrown Toenail Pain Reliever gel which helps to numb the area and soften the nail.
Sit with your foot up as much as possible, and elevate your foot on a pillow at night. Next day it should feel a lot more comfortable.
Then, every day, remove the old manky piece of cotton wool and tuck another wisp into the space – each time you will be able to insert a slightly larger wad until the corner or sliver of ingrowing nail and the flesh beside and immediately behind it are separated. Then continue replacing the same sized piece of clean cotton wool every day until the problem is solved.
Walk barefoot at home as much as possible.
If your toenail is curved inwards, you could try the Scholl Ingrown Toenail Treatment Kit whose clips straighten the toenail and allows it to grow out straight. I must admit I’ve not got on well with these as the clips seem too small, but some people swear by them.
If, at any time, you develop an infection and the area looks red, feels hot and is throbbing, seek medical advice. You may need antibiotics.
How to prevent ingrown toenails
To prevent ingrowing toenails, trim nails straight across using a toenail clipper.
Don’t cut a small V in the centre of the nail’s leading edge, as is sometimes advised. THIS DOES NOT WORK! Toenails are too hard and rigid for a nick in the centre to have any effect on how the corners grow. What’s worse, the V will catch on your socks or tights and may even make the problem worse.
Wear comfortable shoes that don’t pinch your toes.
If a spike develops at the edge of a nail, gently file it down using a special ingrown toenail file, but don’t over trim the corner away.
Avoid picking your toenails.
If the corner of the nail starts playing up again, just tuck in a wisp of cotton wool and the problem will solve itself almost overnight.
People with diabetes are especially prone to complications from ingrowing toenails – do not cut your nails yourself, visit a podiatrist (chiropodist) for treatment and advice.