Ingrown toenails cause pain, redness, and swelling. Home remedies and medical treatments can help relieve symptoms and prevent future infections.

Ingrown toenails are a common problem, especially for people who wear shoes that are too tight or don’t allow their feet to breathe.

Around 20 percent of people experience an ingrown toenail at some point in their lives. Symptoms of an ingrown toenail can include pain and swelling of the toe. Sometimes, the nail may become infected.

There are many treatments for ingrown toenails, ranging from home remedies to surgery. In most cases, you can treat an ingrown toenail at home with over-the-counter medication or home remedies. However, if the nail is infected or causing severe pain, you may need to see a doctor for treatment.

An ingrown toenail happens when the corner or edge of your toenail curves and grows into the surrounding skin. This may cause pain, redness, and swelling. The condition is very common in both men and women. Your big toe is most likely to be affected.

Common causes of ingrown toenails are:

To prevent infection, it’s important to treat ingrown toenails as soon as they occur. Mild cases may require minor treatment with home remedies. Serious cases may need surgical intervention.

The following treatments can help relieve pain and promote the healing of an ingrown toenail.

Soaking the affected foot may help reduce swelling and ease the pain. You can soak your foot in warm, soapy water for up to 20 minutes at a time. Castile soap is a good option. Adding Epsom salts to the water may bring additional relief.

Apple cider vinegar is a folk remedy for almost everything these days, including ingrown toenails. It’s believed to have antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, and pain-relieving abilities, although scientific evidence is limited.

To try this remedy, prepare a basin of warm water combined with 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar. Soak the affected foot for up to 20 minutes daily. Dry your foot thoroughly after soaking.

Some experts recommend tucking small bits of cotton or waxed dental floss under the edge of an ingrown toenail to encourage proper nail growth. Not every medical group agrees.

According to the American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons, placing cotton under your nail may increase pain and allow harmful bacteria to thrive. Soaking the cotton or floss in alcohol before application may help reduce this risk.

Using over-the-counter antiseptic ointment or cream can promote healing and help reduce the risk of infection. Apply the ointment to the affected toenail following the manufacturer’s instructions, usually up to three times daily.

These ointments can include:

  • neomycin (Neosporin)
  • bacitracin/polymyxin B (Polysporin)
  • mupirocin (Bactroban)

Be sure to bandage the toenail after application.

Shoes and socks that are too tight can crowd your toes. Improper footwear is a leading cause of ingrown toenails. To help prevent an ingrown toenail from developing or worsening, wear shoes and socks or hosiery that fit but still leave ample space in the toe bed. During the healing process, avoid shoes or wear sandals as much as possible to limit pressure on your toenails.

Acetaminophen (Tylenol) may help relieve ingrown toenail pain. Side effects are unusual unless you take more than the daily recommended amount of 2 325 milligram (mg) tablets every 4 to 6 hours. Do not exceed 10 tablets in 24 hours and don’t take it with alcohol.

If swelling is present, ibuprofen (Advil) may be a better option because it relieves both pain and swelling. Some common side effects of ibuprofen include abdominal pain, upset stomach, and diarrhea.

Take all over-the-counter pain relievers as directed by the manufacturer or a doctor.

A toe protector provides a cushioning barrier for ingrown toenails. Toe protectors are available as rings that fit around the affected area or as a covering for the entire toe. Some brands of toe protectors, such as Dr. Scholl’s, come with a medicated gel to help soften toenails for easy trimming. Use the treatment as directed until the ingrown toenail is gone.

Toe braces are thin composite devices that hold the toe in place and shield the skin from as a new nail grows back. They help treat and prevent ingrown toenails. You can find toe braces online and in some pharmacies.

Your doctor may prescribe oral antibiotics for a severe ingrown toenail infection that doesn’t respond to other remedies and treatments. Oral antibiotics help reduce pain and swelling while also fighting infection.

Some signs of infection may include:

  • increased redness
  • throbbing pain
  • increased swelling
  • pus
  • warmth in the affected toe and its surrounding area
  • foul odor

Some antibiotics used to treat infected ingrown toenails are ampicillin (Omnipen), amoxicillin (Amoxil, Moxatag), and vancomycin (Vancocin).

If an ingrown toenail doesn’t improve with home remedies, partial or full removal of the nail may be necessary. Using a local anesthetic, a doctor may remove part of the nail’s border, the underlying nail bed, or part of the middle growth plate.

In severe, recurring cases, the doctor may recommend removing the entire ingrown nail. This is the last resort and a potentially painful solution that may increase your risk of infection. It also increases the risk of a misshapen toenail as it grows back.

Minor foot problems like ingrown toenails may cause serious complications in some people. See the doctor if you have an ingrown toenail and you have diabetes or another condition that causes poor circulation, or you have a compromised immune system.

You should also see a doctor if:

  • pain and swelling are severe
  • home remedies don’t improve the condition
  • you have an allergic skin reaction to a home remedy
  • you have questions about how to care for an ingrown toenail

Most ingrown toenails aren’t serious. They should improve within a week or so without causing permanent damage with the proper home care. Left untreated, ingrown toenails may cause severe pain and infection that could spread to deeper layers of skin.

It’s common for ingrown toenails to recur, especially if you don’t take steps to prevent them.

Prevention tips

  • Move around carefully to avoid toenail trauma.
  • Trim your toenails straight across, no shorter than the tip of your toe.
  • If your job increases your risk of toenail injury, wear protective footgear.
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Ingrown toenails can be painful, but they’re usually easy to treat at home. Wearing proper-fitting shoes, trimming your nails straight across, and soaking your feet can help prevent ingrown toenails.

Ingrown toenails usually heal without causing permanent damage. But, sometimes, they can lead to serious complications. See your doctor if you have an underlying condition that puts you at risk for complications, such as diabetes.