What is paronychia?

Paronychia is an infection that occurs in the folds of the toenails or fingernails. These nail folds are the ridges that surround the side of the nail, and when paronychia occurs, it can cause a ridge of skin to become red or swollen and painful. The term is often used to describe nail fungus, but the condition can be caused by fungus or have a bacterial infection present, making the condition a bit confusing to understand. Most often, the inflammation and pain are caused by yeast infections of the skin such as candida.

Most people will have paronychia at some point in their lives. In young children, the cause is usually thumb sucking or nail biting. People who work with their hands in humid environments, such as those who frequently wash dishes, may also be slightly more prone to this condition. Another common cause of paronychia is injury to a nail. If you cut a nail too close or start getting an ingrown toenail, you can develop the condition, especially on your toes.

As long as there appears to be no pus around the skin folds, and the condition isn't extremely painful, you may be able to ignore paronychia; sometimes it can resolve itself. If the skin becomes more swollen, if the skin begins to peel, or if there is pus or ingrown nails, you should see a doctor. People with poor circulation and diabetes should never ignore things like paronychia due to the added risk of lower extremity infection.

Most often, treatments for this condition are the application of antifungal creams or antibiotic creams. Some people do not respond to lotions or creams and may require oral medications. Treatment generally depends on the severity and the underlying cause. Doctors also recommend that if you need medication to treat paronychia, you finish the medication even if the condition improves within a few days. Severe cases may require drainage of pus, usually done in a doctor's office.

If you have an active case of paronychia, don't bite your nails. Try to avoid doing wet jobs like washing dishes. Be sure to limit showers to a few minutes and thoroughly dry your feet or hands afterward.

Fungal and bacterial infections can be contagious and you should avoid getting pedicures or manicures if you have this condition. For children who seem to have this frequently, especially due to thumb sucking or nail biting, it can help to discourage these behaviors. If possible, keep your hands or feet (since some children chew on their toes) covered.

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