Hangnails are those irritating, jagged pieces of skin that stiffly jut out from around the sides of your fingernails. They rarely occur on toes. Despite their name, hangnails are not part of the nail itself. They may be small, but the pain, irritation, and discomfort hangnails cause are not.

Hangnails have multiple causes, including cracked, brittle skin. They may occur more often during winter, since skin is prone to dryness during cold weather.

Anything that dries out the skin of your hands can make you more prone to hangnails. For example, if you often immerse your hands in hot or cold water by washing dishes without gloves, or swim in a chlorinated pool, or are a healthcare worker who washes hands often, you may cause this condition to occur.

People who bite their nails, or clip their cuticles down too closely to the nailbed, may also get hangnails more often.

More than just a nuisance, hangnails pose a real risk for infection.

When it comes to treating hangnails, what you shouldn’t do is just as important as what you should do.

Don’t give in to temptation and try to rip or bite off the hangnail. This is likely to tear the skin, which is still attached to your nailbed. Once open, that area of skin can bleed or become vulnerable to infection from bacteria or fungi. In order to effectively and safely remove a hangnail, follow these steps:

  1. Wash your hands to avoid spreading germs to the area.
  2. Soften the hangnail with warm, soapy water. You can also apply mineral oil or petroleum jelly very gently to the area in a circular motion. Give the hangnail around 10 minutes to soften.
  3. Use a sanitized nail clipper or cuticle scissor to cut off the hangnail. This may be hard to do if the hangnail is on your dominant hand. If you are unable to cut it yourself, ask someone else to assist you. Make sure to cut off only the part of the hangnail which is jutting out, and not the living skin underneath. Try to cut off as much of the dead skin as possible, so nothing is left jutting out from your nail bed.
  4. If you accidentally cut too closely and it bleeds, rinse with water, coat with antibacterial ointment, and cover the area with a bandage until it is completely healed.
  5. If you cut off the hangnail without drawing blood, moisturize the area liberally.

Once a hangnail occurs, it can become irritated, causing significant amounts of discomfort. While it may be hard to believe that something so small can hurt so much, the reason why has to do with location and skin composition.

Hangnails happen at the base or sides of the nail, where nerve endings and blood vessels abound. Once a hangnail becomes inflamed and swollen, it exerts pressure on these nerve endings, increasing your discomfort. Symptoms of a hangnail includes:

  • visible, jutting, piece of skin
  • redness along the side or bottom of the nail bed
  • swelling
  • pain, tenderness, or discomfort

If your hangnail is infected, you may notice a sensation of warmth, and a pus-filled abscess may appear.

With proper skin care, hangnails can be prevented. Here are some tips:

  • Cover your hands with gloves during cold weather months.
  • Wear work gloves when performing activities that are hard on the skin, such as gardening, household cleaning, and dishwashing.
  • Don’t cut your cuticles, even when having a professional manicure done. Instead, soak the cuticles with warm water, and push them back gently with an orange (cuticle) stick, specifically designed for this purpose. You can also do this after you shower or bathe, or use a gel cuticle remover. Either way, moisturize afterward.
  • Keep your hands moisturized. There are many products that work well. Try using an emollient hand cream designed to treat dry, cracked skin or petroleum jelly. You can even use diaper rash cream in a pinch. Put a thick coating of the product of your choice on your hands, and rub it into your cuticles right before bed.
  • If you’re a nail biter, try to find ways to stop, such as using a bitter-tasting nail polish.
  • Reduce or stop using products containing acetone, which is commonly found in nail polish remover. Acetone dries the skin.

It is important to treat an infected hangnail quickly. Infected hangnails can usually be treated at home with topical antibiotic ointment. If this condition does not clear up within one week, see a doctor.

While rare, hangnail infections sometimes spread to other parts of the body. They can also cause the nail to become discolored. A doctor will be able to determine the best type of treatment for the infection you have.

Hangnails are common, especially during cold weather months. Having dry skin, biting your nails, and cutting your cuticles down too low may make you more prone to getting this condition.

Hangnails can hurt, but they can also be prevented by keeping skin moisturized and making some lifestyle changes.

If an infected hangnail does not resolve within a week, see a doctor.

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