How to Recognize and Treat an Infected Hangnail

Medically reviewed by Deborah Weatherspoon, PhD, RN, CRNA, COI on January 12, 2017Written by Natalie Silver on January 12, 2017

What is a hangnail?

Experiencing pain around your fingernails is usually a sign of irritation or infection. Swelling and redness around your fingernail may be caused by an infected hangnail.

A hangnail is a piece of skin near the root of the nail that appears jagged and torn. Hangnails generally appear on the fingers and not on the toes, though it’s possible to have one around a toenail.

A hangnail isn’t the same condition as an infected or ingrown nail. A hangnail only refers to the skin along the sides of the nail, not the nail itself.

Hangnails are common. Most people experience hangnails when their skin is dry, such as in the winter or after being exposed to water for a prolonged period. A hangnail can become infected if exposed to bacteria or fungus.

Infected hangnails should be treated as soon as possible. Oftentimes, the condition can be successfully treated at home. If the hangnail doesn’t clear up within a week, you should consult your doctor.

How to identify an infected hangnail

You should be able to notice the symptoms of an infected hangnail soon after it becomes infected. This condition is known as paronychia.

Typical symptoms include:

  • redness
  • swelling
  • tenderness or pain
  • a warm feeling
  • a pus-filled blister in the affected area

A prolonged infection may result in a discolored nail or an infection that spreads to other parts of the body.

If you’re experiencing a bacterial infection, these symptoms may occur suddenly. If you’re experiencing a fungal infection, your symptoms may be more gradual. Fungal infections appear more frequently in those who have diabetes or who spend a large amount of time with their hands exposed in water.

How to treat an infected hangnail

A mild to moderate hangnail infection can usually be treated at home. Follow these steps for home treatment:

  1. Soak the infected area in warm water once or twice a day for 20 minutes.
  2. After your initial soak, cut the hangnail off. Eliminating the rough edge of the hangnail might reduce further infection. Make sure to cut it straight with cuticle clippers.
  3. Rub vitamin E oil or cream on the affected area to prevent another hangnail.
  4. Use a topical antibiotic cream on the infected hangnail for a few days. After applying the cream, cover the area with a bandage.

Don’t rip off the hangnail, as it can worsen the condition. If your symptoms worsen or don’t clear within a week, consult your doctor. You should also consult your doctor if you’re experiencing severe pain, major swelling of the finger, excessive pus, or other signs of infection.

What happens if an infected hangnail isn’t treated?

Ignoring an infected hangnail can make your condition worse. In rare situations, the infection may spread to other parts of your body if left untreated. Contact your doctor if you have pus around or under the nail or if the infection doesn’t get better within a week.

When to see your doctor

You should schedule an appointment with your doctor if:

  • the affected area doesn’t improve after a week of home treatment
  • the affected area blisters and becomes filled with pus
  • other areas of the nail or finger begin to show symptoms of infection
  • the nail becomes separated from the skin
  • you notice any other unusual symptoms, such as a change in nail color or shape
  • you have diabetes and you suspect your hangnail is infected

Your doctor will examine your hangnail for signs of infection. They may be able to diagnose the hangnail just by looking at it. In other cases, your doctor may want to take a sample of any pus in the infected area to send to a lab for further analysis.

You may need a prescription for an antibiotic in topical or oral form. If pus is present, your doctor may need to drain the infected area. This removes the bacteria and may help relieve pressure in the area.

Once treated by stronger medications, the hangnail should clear up within 5 to 7 days.

Check out: Fungal nail infection »

Outlook

Hangnails are common, especially if your hands are dry because of the weather or from frequent exposure to water. Most hangnails will heal on their own without any signs of infection.

Infected hangnails need appropriate treatment, many of which can be done at home. You should see a doctor if the infected hangnail doesn’t heal after about a week of home treatment. If you require medical treatment for the infected hangnail, your symptoms should go away after a few days. If you have a chronic condition, it may take several weeks to completely heal.

How to prevent future infection

Preventing hangnails is one of the best ways to avoid infected hangnails.

If you suspect any kind of injury to your nail or to the skin around the nail, you should seek immediate treatment.

Keep reading: How to treat an ingrown fingernail »

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