What Causes Ingrown Nails?

What is an ingrown nail?

Firstly, let’s define what an ingrown nail (onychocryptosis) is.  An ingrown nail is where the edges or corners of your toenails grow down into your skin causing inflammation and pain.

It usually men aged 15-40 and on your big toe where the tip on the corner of the nail grows in a curve and pierces your skin.  This annoying affliction accounts for up to 20% of foot problems seen by a doctor or podiatrist.

While the symptoms can be painful, it is can be fixed and is easy to stop from happening the next time. You just need to understand why they happen and what to do about them.

What causes an ingrown nail?

The most common causes of an ingrown toenail are:

  1. Cutting your nails incorrectly.
  2. Damage to your toenail.
  3. Playing sports or physical activities.
  4. Having poorly fitted shoes.
  5. Your family.

Cut your nails properly.

The most common cause of an ingrown nail is from cutting them too short or too close to the skin around the toe.

Ideally, you should be cutting in a straight line across the nail edge, not curving into the corners.

 If the nail begins to grow and it is too close to the skin, it can head in the wrong direction, leading to pain.


Another common cause is from having damage to your toes which causes the nails to break, splinter or crack. You may have stubbed your toe, dropped something heavy on to it or kicked something (or someone) immovable.

If the toenail becomes deformed or poorly shaped, the risk that it starts to grow into your skin increases.

Sporty types suffer more than couch potatoes.

People who play sports such as soccer where they have frequent contact between their toes and a ball can suffer from nail growth problems.

This is also the same for ballet dancers (due to the crippling foot positions) or even people who drive vehicles for a living.

All that extra pressure on the tips of your toes can cause your nails to grow at funny angles and cause problems.

Get proper shoes.

This is probably the single most common piece of advice I keep giving on this site.

We all know that having well-fitted and comfortable shoes is very important for the overall wellness of our feet.

Wearing shoes that squeeze our toes together or put pressure on the nail can cause the nails to grow incorrectly. If left untreated, this can lead to an ingrown nail.

As well as wearing proper shoes, wearing socks or tights that are too restrictive can also place extra stress on your nails, causing irregular growth.

It’s your family’s fault.

It is also possible that you are susceptible to these sorts of nail problems due to hereditary conditions.

Some of us are born with a predisposition to issues like this and there is not much you can do about it.

What are the symptoms of an ingrown nail?

  1. Pain around the nail edge or tip.
  2. Pain when walking.
  3. Swelling.
  4. Redness or inflammation.
  5. Infection.
cartoon image showing an example of an ingrown nail

The primary symptom you will experience will be pain around the edge or sides of the nail where it has started to grow into the skin.

It is likely to be more painful when you press or touch it or when you are walking.  You may also notice that the affected area starts to become puffy or swollen.

If the growth has taken hold, the skin will become inflamed and look red and angry. It is worth keeping an eye on how red it becomes though as it may lead to the next symptom.

A severe case of ingrowing toenails can lead to infection.

If the area is not kept clean, there is a risk that the wound will start to smell, bleed or ooze pus – a good sign that things have taken a more serious turn!

What are the risks?

The usual prognosis for an ingrown nail is that it will need to be soaked in water to soften it up, appropriately cut and treated with a local antibiotic cream to reduce any risk of infection.

You can also use cotton buds or devices to lift the corner of the nail so that it does not grown into the skin any more than it has already.  You are trying to train it to grow the correct way.

You could get a nasty infection.

If left untreated, the risk of infection increases and there is a possibility that it could spread further, damaging the skin or bones in the foot. An untreated infection can lead to sores or open wounds, which will be harder to treat.

If all else fails – surgery.

If the nail growth is too far gone, you may need to have surgery to have the nail removed. A toenail removal procedure is bread-and-butter for Podiatrists but can be painful for you – so try not to let your nails get too overgrown.

Diabetics need to take extra care.

If you have Diabetes, then you already know that it is vital to take good care of your feet. People with diabetes suffer from circulation problems and nerve damage, so you may smell your ingrown nail before you feel it!

Ensuring that your nails are cared for properly is just part of the diabetics foot care regime and should not be ignored. If you are having a pedicure, make sure you see a suitably qualified company or even better, see a podiatrist for a medical pedicure.

1 thought on “What Causes Ingrown Nails?”

Leave a Comment