How to treat an infected hangnail
In this article, we look at home remedies, how a doctor can drain an abscess, how to prevent infection, and possible complications.
Is the hangnail infected?
Redness, swelling, and pain are potential symptoms of an infected hangnail.
Infection occurs when bacteria or fungus get under the skin. An infection between the nail and the skin is called paronychia.
Hangnails commonly occur on the fingernails and are sometimes also found on the toenails.
The following symptoms suggest a hangnail is infected:
- a warm feeling
- some bleeding
- a pus-filled abscess at the nail edge
Bacterial infections can produce symptoms almost immediately, while fungal infections may take longer to appear.
A hangnail can be treated at home using the following steps:
- Warm water soak. Soak the nail in warm water for 15 minutes up to 4 times a day. This increases blood flow and cleanses the area.
- Trim the hangnail. When the hangnail is soft from soaking, trim the edges to prevent it from catching on anything, and to reduce the risk of further infection.
- Moisturize. Moisturize the affected area to stop it from drying out. This can prevent more hangnails from developing.
- Medicinal creams. Applying small amounts of antibiotic or antifungal cream, depending on the cause of the infection, can speed up recovery. A doctor may also recommend topical steroids.
If the hangnail develops an abscess or starts producing pus, it may need to be drained to stop the infection from spreading. This procedure should be done by a medical professional.
To drain an infected hangnail, a doctor will:
- Numb the area.
- Lift the nail fold with an instrument to allow the pus to drain away. A surgical incision is rarely necessary.
- Wash the area thoroughly.
- Place a gauze strip into the abscess. This stays in the wound for 24-48 hours to help the area drain.
- Prescribe an oral antibiotic.
The dressing and gauze should be removed within a couple of days. A person should then soak their nail in warm water up to 4 times a day.
People can also use the RICE method to reduce pain and swelling. The acronym RICE stands for rest, ice, compression, and elevation. Taking over-the-counter painkillers and anti-inflammatories can also help.
Complications and when to see a doctor
A hangnail infection may resolve by itself, although an infection that lasts over 6 weeks will need to be assessed by a doctor.
In most cases, infected hangnails are temporary, mild, and can be treated at home.
If the hangnail develops an abscess or starts producing pus, it may need to be drained by a doctor. Avoid doing this at home, as improper drainage can lead to further complications.
A medical professional can usually diagnose an infected hangnail by sight. They may also send a sample off to a laboratory to determine the type of infection.
An infection lasting for longer than 6 weeks may be a chronic condition. A doctor can advise on the best course of treatment for this condition.
Rarely, the infection can spread to the hand or foot. This can be very serious, resulting in a loss of sensation or mobility, and can put the extremity at risk of amputation. Infections are more likely to spread in people with diabetes or other circulation disorders.
Hangnails occur when the skin around the nail becomes irritated or damaged. Infection occurs when bacteria or fungus get into the wound.
A person is more likely to develop an infection if their hands or feet are frequently in moist conditions. For example, people who work as bakers and dishwashers are more likely to experience this condition.
A hangnail may be caused by:
- dry skin
- frequent sucking of a finger
- clipping the nails too short
- clipping the cuticles, the soft skin at the base of the nails
- using artificial nails that contain glue or chemicals
- having the hands in water frequently,
- certain health conditions, such as diabetes
Infections around the nail can also be caused by ingrown fingernails or toenails, which occur when the edge of the nail starts to grow into the soft tissue surrounding it.
Moisturizing the skin on the hands regularly may help to prevent hangnail infections.
To prevent a hangnail from becoming infected:
- avoid peeling it, as further injury makes infection more likely
- trim the hangnail down with nail clippers
- keep the fingernails clean
- moisturize regularly
- avoid biting the nails
- make sure the hands do not stay wet for too long
- wear rubber gloves when washing up or keeping the hands underwater
Hangnail infections are common and will often heal without complication.
Home remedies, such as warm water soaks and antibiotics, can be effective for most mild infections. More serious infections involving pus or abscesses may require medical attention.