Preventive Maintenance: Dealing with ingrown toenails

by Karen Bowen

Over the cold winter season you’re likely planning to wear extra thick socks to keep your feet warm while you’re jumping in and out of the truck in the snow.

Will your toes be all squeezed together in the end of your boots? If so, be sure to keep an eye on them.

You’ll want to avoid ingrown toenails.

Although there are many causes of ingrown toenails, the two most common ones are tight boots/shoes, and toenails that haven’t been cut properly.

When your boots/shoes press tightly against the side of your toes, they may force the nail to curl into the skin, making the nail break the skin and the skin grow over the edge of the nail.

These two causes are easy to avoid.

Unfortunately, some other causes aren’t. Sometimes your nail just naturally grows too large for the size of your toes.

Sometimes, if you have arthritis in your feet, your toes will curl and you’ll be more prone to this condition.

Sometimes, you just stub your toe and force the nail into the surrounding skin (lucky you – your steel toes should protect you from this).

As well, repeated actions, like jumping out of your truck so that your nail pushes against your boot, can also cause ingrown toenails.

The condition your toenail is in, itself, can lead to an ingrown toenail.

Nails that are peeled at the edge or trimmed down on the sides tend to become ingrown more easily.

Nails of older people also become ingrown more easily because they grow thicker and thicker, becoming less flexible with age.

To avoid ingrown nails, it is recommended that you cut your toenails straight across, and keep the corners of the nail longer than the area where the nail joins the toe. Even though I recommend that you regularly examine your feet to be aware of any hidden problems before they become serious, it’s unlikely an ingrown toenail will remain hidden very long. It hurts!

When identifying a simple ingrown toenail, this is what you’ll see: redness and swelling around the edge of the nail.

The skin will also feel hot in this area, and may even throb with your heartbeat.

Driving truck makes you more likely to get ingrown nails than many other occupations because of the boots you wear.

The inside of your boot is warm and moist, creating an ideal environment for germs to grow once your nail has broken through your skin.

As soon as you notice you’ve got this problem, take action so it doesn’t become more serious.

Start by soaking your feet in warm salt water (one teaspoon of table salt per pint of water) or soapy water for 15 to 20 minutes twice a day.

Then dry them thoroughly with a clean towel.

Put a mild antiseptic solution/cream (Polysporin, Bactine, or even alcohol – but that will hurt) on the effected area. Direct your nail over your skin by putting clean fresh bits of cotton bandage under the ingrown edge after each soaking.

Then, wrap the toe in a clean bandage, maintaining a space between the toes.

However, there are times when you still may need to see a doctor. If your toe is really red and swollen, or if it is painful and draining, you have an infection and you should probably see a doctor and get an antibiotic.

If you try to tough it out and ignore the pain hoping it will go away or heal by itself, an ingrown toenail can infect the underlying bone and lead to a serious bone infection.

Additionally, if you haven’t had your tetanus booster within the last five years, now’s the time to get one.

Certain medical conditions may also make a trip to the doctor necessary.

If you have diabetes or poor circulation in your feet, an ingrown toenail can become very serious – be sure to see your doctor! Complications can be especially bad because the circulation and nerve supply to your feet can be impaired.

So, even a relatively minor injury to your foot, a cut, scrape, corn, callus or ingrown toenail, can lead to a more serious condition.

In rare cases, an ingrown toenail can become a hard-to-heal open sore (foot ulcer), which might eventually require surgery. In the worst-case-scenario, foot ulcers left untreated may become infected and eventually even gangrenous (sometimes leading to amputation).

So when you’re putting on your thick, wooly socks as you get dressed this season, make sure they’ll leave your toes enough room to wiggle in your boots.

As well, wear thermal socks that wick the moisture away from your skin.

They will not only make your feet feel warmer, but will cut down on infections around your toes.

Following this advice will help you put your best foot forward this holiday season.

Merry Christmas!

– Karen Bowen is a professional health and nutrition consultant and she can be reached by e-mail at

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