Long, short, oval or stiletto, like your hands, your fingernails can tell people a lot about who you are and what you do with them. They can give others clues into your unique personality and even any dirty little habits you may keep like biting or picking at your nails and skin.
Nail biting and picking at your nails and cuticles, the soft nail bed surrounding it, can be a costly habit that can lead to small pieces of torn skin at the root of your fingernails—and yes, sometimes even your toenails.
The small pieces of skin that form are called hangnails. Although its name implies that you have a piece of nail hanging off, this is a misnomer. A hangnail is actually a piece of cuticle skin. While these can be a nuisance from time to time, hangnails can also lead to an infection called paronychia.
“Paronychia is inflammation that involves the tissue (skin) on the side or at the base of the fingernail,” said Samia Kadri, a Banner Health family nurse practitioner. “It’s common for hangnails to become infected due to the bacteria and germs our hands come in contact with daily.”
Hangnails can be a pain, but how do you treat them and how do you get rid of them? Here are some of the best ways to keep your nails free of hangnails.
What causes hangnails?
Hangnails are a sign that the skin around your fingernails is lacking oil. Anything that causes dry skin, like frequent handwashing (which we should always do!), dry, winter weather and harsh chemicals, like hand sanitizer or cleaning products, can deplete oil in your skin and contribute to hangnail growth.
“Manicuring or cutting the nail too short, nail biting and picking at or cutting your cuticle can also lead to hangnails and infections,” Kadri said. “This causes a weaker nail bed, which triggers hangnail growth.”
If you suck your thumb, are prone to ingrown nails, have diabetes or are immunocompromised, you may also be at risk for developing hangnails.
How do I know I have a hangnail?
If you have a hangnail, chances are you’ll know pretty quickly when you touch it or rub it up against something. Ouch! How can something so small hurt so bad?
“You have nerve endings and blood vessels in this area, especially the finger, which are more sensitive,” Kadri said.
In addition to the discomfort you may feel, worsening signs of hangnail usually include swelling, redness and tenderness. The skin will usually swell on the side of the affected nail bed and become tender and painful. This may be an abscess; it may feel warm or fill with pus.
How do I treat a hangnail?
First, whatever you do, don’t give in to the urge to try and rip, tear or (eek!) bite off the hangnail. This will likely tear the skin and may cause bleeding, further discomfort and an infection from bacteria or fungi.
To treat a hangnail at home, use the following steps:
- Soak the affected finger in clean, warm water for 10 to 15 minutes.
- Massage vitamin E oil, petroleum jelly or mineral oil very gently to the area.
- Gently clip the hangnail with sterile nail clippers or cuticle cutters to prevent it from catching on anything and to reduce the risk of further infection. If you cut too deep and it bleeds, rinse with warm water and cover with antibacterial ointment.
- Moisturize the affected area to stop it from drying out and to prevent more hangnails from sprouting.
Early treatment may prevent worsening symptoms, such as abscess formation or infection that spreads up the affected finger.
“If you develop an abscess or the hangnail produces pus, you’ll want to see your health care provider,” Kadri said. “The provider can evaluate the need to drain the abscess and initiate oral antibiotics, if necessary.”
Cellulitis, a common bacterial infection, and fungal infections are problems that can spring from hangnails and require treatment. Signs of cellulitis are redness and swelling that extend up the finger.
How can I prevent hangnails?
Now that you know the causes and how to treat a hangnail, let’s talk about how you can avoid them altogether.
Here are some tips:
- Resist the urge to pick at your cuticles and bite your nails.
- Don’t cut your cuticles, even when you have them cut by a nail tech. Instead, soak the cuticles with warm water and gently push them back with a tool designed for this purpose.
- Moisturize your hands and cuticles daily.
- Avoid using harsh soaps and chemicals like acetone.
- Wear gloves when house cleaning, washing dishes and gardening.
- Put on gloves when going outside in cold weather.
- Drink lots of water and eat a well-balanced diet.
Hangnails can be a real pain, but they can also be prevented by keeping your skin moisturized and making simple lifestyle changes.
If you have an infected hangnail that doesn’t improve within a week or worsens, talk to your health care provider.