If you have small piece of torn skin hanging loose next your nail, you have a hangnail. Although it would be logical to think it is a condition that affects the nail — since hangnail has the word “nail” in it — a hangnail is specifically a skin condition.

Hangnails are very common and can be caused by several things. Many people experience hangnails when their skin is dry such as during the drier, colder days of winter or with repeated hand washings.

Hangnails can also be caused by trauma such as a paper cut or excessive finger picking. Those who have a habit of picking their nails and the surrounding areas are more likely to get hangnails than those who do not.

Some people, due to their occupations, are more likely to get hangnails including:

  • doctors
  • nurses
  • food staff
  • carpenters and builders

If you get a hangnail, you should not attempt to rip or pull it off. If you pull on it, you may pull off additional skin that will open more inner skin layers to bacteria. This can also aggravate the hangnail area, which can cause it to become red and slightly inflamed.

To prevent infection and irritation, wash your hands before touching the hangnail.

Then, place your hand flat on a clean surface, palm down. Carefully cut away the excess skin from the hangnail with a pair of clean nail clippers or scissors. If you are unable to do it yourself, consider asking a family member or friend for assistance.

Putting antibiotic ointment or cream on the area is a good idea to protect the area from bacteria.

If your hangnail does not improve within two weeks or shows sign of infection, contact your doctor.

Hangnails have the risk of getting infected. If exposed to bacteria or fungus, an infection can develop. Therefore, it’s important to keep your hands clean and free of dirt and debris.

Symptoms of infection can include:

  • red, puffy skin surrounding the injury
  • pus surrounding the nail bed or hangnail area
  • skin feeling hot to the touch
  • fever or chills
  • increased pain or throbbing in finger

To treat an infected hangnail, follow the steps above in treating a normal hangnail followed by the application of a topical antibiotic cream and a bandage to keep the area covered.

Covering the area may prevent any further infection and keep your wound from infecting others.

Typically, an ordinary hangnail does not require a doctor visit. Consider contacting your doctor, however, if your hangnail becomes infected and/or:

  • The area does not heal within a week.
  • Blisters and pus form around the injury.
  • Infection travels down the finger and nail bed.
  • Your nail changes color.
  • Your nail becomes weak.
  • You have diabetes.

Your doctor might prescribe antibiotics for the infection.

Hangnails are extremely common. Those who wash their hands often, pick their fingers or are frequently working with their hands are more likely to get hangnails.

Hangnails are completely treatable and usually go away after a few days as long as you don’t pick or pull at the skin.