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Ingrown toenails

5-minute read

Key facts

  • An ingrown toenail is when the side of your nail curls down and grows into the skin around the nail.
  • It most often happens to big toes.
  • An ingrown toenail can get infected.

What is an ingrown toenail?

An ingrown toenail is when the side of the nail curls down and grows into the skin around the nail.

Any toe can be affected but it most commonly happens to the big toe. It can happen at any age.

An ingrown toenail can become painful and inflamed (tender, red and swollen).

Sometimes an ingrown toenail can get infected. If the infection is not treated, it could spread. It could infect the bones underneath.

What are the symptoms of an ingrown toenail?

If you have an ingrown toenail, it might feel:

  • painful or tender
  • red
  • swollen
  • surrounded by hardened skin

An ingrown toenail can get infected. Signs of infection are:

  • pus or discharge of liquid from the wound around the toe
  • fever or throbbing pain in the toe
  • bleeding around the toenail
  • redness and warm skin around the toenail

The symptoms usually get worse rather than better.

Illustration comparing an healthy nail to an ingrown nail.
An ingrown toenail happens when the side of the nail grows into the skin around the nail. It can be painful and can sometimes become infected.

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

What causes ingrown toenails?

You can get an ingrown toenail if you:

  • have tight fitting shoes or socks
  • wear tights that crowd your toes, putting pressure on your toenails
  • cut your toenails too short or not straight across
  • injure your toe, for example by stubbing it
  • pick or tear the corners of your toenails
  • have sweaty feet, making your skin soft and easier for toenails to dig in
  • have toenails with naturally curved edges or toenails that are fan-shaped

Ingrown toenails become more common in older people. This is because your nails get thicker with age.

Ingrown toenails can also be caused by some medicines and fungal nail infections.

Ingrown toenails are more likely to get infected in people who have diabetes or circulation problems.

When should I see a doctor?

If you have symptoms of an infected ingrown toenail, you should see a doctor.

You should see your doctor if you have an ingrown toenail and have:

  • poor circulation
  • diabetes
  • nerve damage to your legs or feet

Your doctor may refer you to a podiatrist. A podiatrist is a trained therapist who diagnoses and treats foot conditions.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

How are ingrown toenails treated?

Try this home treatment if your toenail is cutting into your skin:

  • Soak your feet in warm water for 15 to 20 minutes, 3 or 4 times a day.
  • Then use a cotton bud to gently push away the skin from the corner of the nail.
  • Repeat each day for a few weeks and let the toenail grow.
  • After a while, the end of the nail will grow forward. When this happens, push a tiny piece of cotton wool or dental floss under the toenail at the edges. This will help the nail grow over the skin. It will stop the toenail from cutting into the skin. Change the cotton wool or dental floss each time you soak your foot.
  • Do not pick at the toenail or try to remove it yourself.

An infected toenail may need to be treated with antibiotics. Your doctor or podiatrist may need to drain the pus.

In severe cases, part or all of nail may need to be removed by surgery.

Can ingrown toenails be prevented?

To help prevent an ingrown toenail:

  • keep your feet clean and dry
  • wear shoes that fit properly
  • trim your nails properly — briefly soak your foot in warm water before trimming. Make sure you cut straight across. Do not taper or round the corners. Do not cut toenails too short.

If you have diabetes or persistent foot problems should see a health professional regularly. A podiatrist will do routine foot checks and nail care.

Resources and support

Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples can find out more about Your Feet and Diabetes here.

You can also call the healthdirect helpline on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria). A registered nurse is available to speak with 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: December 2023

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