If left untreated, ingrown toenails can lead to serious medical issues. The biggest concern is, of course, infection. The swelling that accompanies the infection only adds more pressure to the nail (pressure = pain). Sometimes a spear-shaped splinter will imbed itself in the nail and continue to grow into the skin. This wedge of nail will need to be removed surgically by a podiatrist. In other instances, the toenail becomes ingrown on both sides of the nail so that the skin almost covers the nail completely.
Redness, swelling, pus, bleeding, clear discharge and hardened skin are all symptoms of infected ingrown toenails. Most infected toenails will be sore to the touch. Some infections are so severe that pain and pressure will be felt in the nail and foot even when the infected person is sedentary. In cases this extreme, a limp may develop.
In a worst-case scenario, the infection in the surrounding tissue of the nail will invade the bone so that a bone infection develops. This condition is known as osteomyelitis. Obviously, once the infection has spread to the bone it is much more difficult to control and to treat. Normally, intravenous antibiotics will do the trick, but if gangrene sets in, amputation may be necessary.
Ingrown toenails are especially dangerous for people with diabetes who suffer from diabetic foot. The combination of poor circulation and neuropathy makes if very difficult for diabetics to notice pain in their lower limbs, feet and toes. A minor complication such as an ingrown toenail can go undetected and therefore untreated for long periods of time. Major infections can develop this way. The best care is preventative care, and diabetics should inspect their feet (or have friend or family member do it for them) on a daily basis.
For most of us, ingrown toenails are not a cause for concern. They usually can be treated at home by soaking the feet several times a day and gently prying the imbedded nail from the skin.
It’s important not to ignore ingrown toenails (most won’t go away by themselves!) and to see a podiatrist if an infection develops. Look for signs of redness, swelling, pus or pain. People with chronic ingrown toenails will want to make sure that their shoes properly fit their feet (avoid shoes with small toe boxes) and that they are properly caring for their nails (trim nails straight across without rounding the corners).
If these simple precautions fail to keep ingrown toenails at bay, you may be genetically predisposed to developing ingrown toenails and should speak to a podiatrist regarding long-term care.