How Do I Know if an Ingrown Toenail Is Infected?

Swelling, changes in skin color and pus are common signs of an ingrown toenail.
Soaking an ingrown toenail in warm water and using antibiotic ointment can help deal with it until a doctor can be seen.
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  • Written By: Kelly Ferguson
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 22 November 2014
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Ingrown toenails can be very painful, so it is sometimes difficult to tell if the injury has become infected based on pain alone. Usually, however, one can tell if an ingrown toenail is infected just by visually examining the toe. There are several warning signs of infection that will likely be present, including changes in skin color and temperature around the affected area, swelling, and pus.

Changes in skin color and temperature that may occur when an ingrown toenail is infected include redness and a feeling of warmth surrounding the affected area. The most obvious sign that an ingrown toenail has become infected is often the presence of pus, either around the affected area or draining from the wound. This is a sure sign that there is an infection present, because the body only produces pus when fighting an infection. Swelling usually occurs to accommodate the pus and other fluids present with infection. The toe may swell enough to cover a large portion of the nail, often making it much more difficult to access the ingrown area.

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Many people try to solve ingrown toenails at home, not realizing the extent of the damage inflicted by digging around in the infected area using non-sterile equipment such as tweezers or toenail clippers. Generally, home remedies for infected ingrown toenails, such as cutting the nail shorter or attempting to dig the nail out, usually just make the problem worse. It is fine, however, to soak the toe in clean, warm water to soften the skin and apply antibiotic ointment to the toe until it is possible to get to the doctor. If the ingrown toenail is infected, a doctor can safely remove the ingrown portion of the toenail and apply antiseptic treatments to the wound to help get rid of the infection.

One should wear comfortable, loose shoes and socks that do not put pressure on the toes. Also, it is important to keep the feet clean to prevent the infection from worsening. Mild, over-the-counter pain killers are usually sufficient to keep the pain tolerable while walking and completing everyday activities until a doctor can fix the ingrown toenail. It is usually recommended to trim the toenails straight across to prevent future ingrown toenails, and avoid cutting the nail down too deeply on either side of the nail. Avoiding trauma that could injure the nail is important for healing current ingrown toenails and preventing future ones.

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anon924766
Post 13

I have one at the moment and it horrible! I've soaked it and put cotton wool in but I don't think it's working. I've had it before and I got it done by a doctor but they had to put needles in my toe and I hated it ! I don't know whether to see the doctor and I'm really nervous about telling my parents. Please tell me what I should do!

geekish
Post 12

I knew pus was never a good sign, but I did not know that it is the body's way of fighting an infection. This explains why when I had staph infection, there was a lot of pus mixed in with the staph. I did not see this pus until the staph infection was removed, as most staph infections stay contained beneath the outside layer of skin, under a large red bump.

I know now that as soon as I see the least bit of pus, I will go to the doctor immediately, since I know from this article that means I have an infection. Well I mean unless it is like acne pus or something like that. Basically if the pus will not go away or goes away but comes back continuously, you should probably go see a doctor.

Speechie
Post 11

@mabeT - How long did this person let it go untreated before his ingrown toenail go out the other side of his toe? This seems like it would take quite a while for an ingrown toenail to do this much damage, as I have known people who have waited a couple months before seeking help!

I am glad the man ended up being okay. I really can not imagine letting something get that bad, but I guess everyone is different. It seems like it would have been difficult to wear shoes at all and to walk on his infected foot for very long. I know doctors can be scary and intimidating, but it seems like the longer you wait to see them, the more scary and intimidating your visit is going to be.

I hope this story teaches others out there that a problem won't just go away if you ignore it. Problems must be faced head-on, and the longer you wait, the bigger your problem is going to get. I hope this man realized his health is more important than his fear of doctors and/or the unknown.

Tomislav
Post 10

Just hearing the words ingrown toenail makes me wince. I used to get them sometimes when I was a kid, so I know how painful ingrown toenails can be. They usually never got to the point where pus formed, but my toes did change color and temperature.

When my toes started to hurt, I knew I needed to see a doctor. I would rather be safe than sorry! The doctor just removed my ingrown toenail and gave me some topical cream to take, and then I was fine. I believe ingrown toenails can be genetic because my Dad always gets them, that is actually how I learned what ingrown toenails were.

I would recommend anyone who has hurt toes, especially around the edge of their toenails should see a doctor. Also, anyone who has any other weird symptoms, no matter how subtle, like a change of temperature or color should see a doctor. If you wait until there are more signs, like puss, then you have an infection, which means more pain and a little while longer to get over.

dimpley
Post 9

My husband has horrible ingrown toenails! They are ugly as all get out, but that is nothing compared to the pain he goes through with them.

I think it must be genetic because his dad also suffers from them, as does his sister. I even see our two-year old’s toenails growing straight down the way his dad’s does.

Unfortunately, in the decade that we have been married this is one area that I cannot change the man’s mind on. He is determined that clippers with ‘diggers’ is enough to handle any ingrown toenail; even the ones that come away bleeding and draining pus!

I have told him, though, that our little boy will not be doing the same manly thing. As soon as he’s old enough, he’s going to the doctor to get those tootsies checked out completely! If his daddy and granddad want to hurt constantly, that’s up to them. My baby boy, on the other hand, does not have to!

mabeT
Post 8

I knew a man many years ago who actually had an ingrown toenail that he let go so long, it grew through the bottom of his toe. He literally clicked when he walked barefoot.

I know this sounds ridiculous, but the fact is that he just didn’t do the doctor thing, and he’d rather be in severe pain than to have it taken care of.

However, he ended up getting such a bad infection in it that he had to have it surgically removed. He literally almost died from the infection, which had gotten into his blood stream.

I do hope that I would have good enough sense than to walk around clicking before I admitted I needed professional help, though!

Monika
Post 7

@SZapper - I'm surprised your friend mistook an ingrown toenail for toe fungus. I'm always surprised by how little most people know about their own bodies!

I actually once had an ingrown toenail and I put off going to the doctor because I felt so embarrassed about it. It just looked so gross. However, going to the doctor was the right thing to do. I didn't have an infection, but my doctor told me that if I had waited any longer I probably would have developed one. He gave me some antibiotic cream for it just in case!

SZapper
Post 6

Ingrown toenails sound so unpleasant. A good friend of mine had one quite awhile ago, and from what she described it sounded just awful. She ended up with an infection that go so bad she actually had to take antibiotics.

At first she thought she had toenail fungus, so she put off going to the doctor and tried using an anti-fungal cream. Unfortunately, that wasn't the problem!

Anyway, one thing she told me that scared me is that you can get ingrown toenails from wearing shoes that are too tight. I decided to rethink a lot of my cute heels after this incident.

julies
Post 5

If you have never had an ingrown toenail, it is hard to understand just how painful it can be. I don't know how a small part of a toenail can cause so much pain, but it certainly does.

I could hardly walk on my foot because the pain was so bad. I didn't want to spend any time trying to figure out an ingrown toenail treatment I could do at home, so called the doctor when I couldn't stand the pain anymore.

I am sure there are some home treatments that might work, but I didn't want to take any chances. I seldom wear nail polish on my toes, and have no idea how my toenail ended up getting an infection.

If your toe is red, swollen and looks like it has pus, you probably have in infection and I would have a doctor look at it before it gets any worse.

sunshined
Post 4

I had never had an ingrown toenail before, so didn't even know what to expect when my big toe was all red and there was pus around it.

I looked online to find an ingrown toenail remedy that might work so I wouldn't have to go to the doctor.

I soaked my foot in some warm water with epsom salt in it hoping that would take care of the infection. I did this every day for 5 days, and it was beginning to look better, but I could tell the infection was not totally gone.

I broke down and went to the doctor to see what needed to be done. He ended up removing the ingrown part of the toenail and gave me some special cream to apply when I got home.

That's what I needed to do in order to get it cleared up. I have no idea what caused the ingrown toenail, but if it ever happens again, I won't put off going to the doctor.

ElizaBennett
Post 3

@manykitties2 - I would go to the doctor if you're seeing pus. Some things are just better dealt with by professionals!

I always worried that I might have an infection if I developed a spot that was red and warm on a toe or a finger. But apparently, a little redness and warmth is normal for the body doing its healing thing. What's not normal as far as color is *streaking.* If you see read and white streaks, head for the doctor.

And I agree with Sara007 - I would *not* go back to that salon. It is possible to develop a very serious infection, like that kind that requires surgery, from poorly sterilized equipment (especially a not-properly-cleaned footbath), so you want to be very careful where you go.

Sara007
Post 2

@manykitties 2 - If you have an ingrown toenail and infection after going to a nail salon there is a good chance they weren't cleaning their tools properly. This happened to me a few years back and I had to go through a unpleasant ingrown toenail removal process at the doctor's office.

If you think you can do it safely, remove the nail polish than soak your feel in warm water with salt in it. Take a look at the nail and see if the toenail looks healthy or not. If it looks nasty I would suggest going to the doctor and letting them clean you up. If it is just a little bit uncomfortable some antibiotic cream from the pharmacy may be all you need.

manykitties2
Post 1

I was wondering how to treat an ingrown toenail if you have nail polish on your toes?

I recently had a pedicure at a nail salon and I am positive I now have an ingrown nail and an infection, as the area is really sore and there is a bit of pus. I thought about just using nail polish remover so I could get a better look at the nail, but I imagine that is going to hurt quite a lot.

Do you think that I should go straight to the doctor to tackle the ingrown toenail infection or just try and fix it myself? I am worried as it hurts quite a bit to put on my shoes.

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