In the typical zombie apocalypse movie or TV show, you’ll see gunshot wounds and broken bones. Off the grid, however, minor conditions can be a major detriment to the performance of many activities of daily survival. One of these is the ingrown toenail, also known as Onychocryptosis.
You rugged individualists out there might think toenail problems are no big deal, that is, until you have one. When you have to be at 110% efficiency just to survive, you don’t want to be in pain every time you take a step. In the worst scenarios, ingrown nails can cause skin ulcers, blood infections (also called “septicemia”), or even total loss of circulation (“gangrene”).
Your fingernails and toenails are made up of a protein called keratin. It is the substance that forms the claws (and covering of horns and hooves) of animals. When we refer to issues involving nails, we refer to it as “ungual” (from the latin word for claw: unguis).
The nail consists of several parts. They include:
The nail plate: this is the hard covering of the end of your finger or toe; what you consider to be the nail.
The nail bed: the skin directly under the nail plate. Made up of dermis and epidermis just like the rest of your skin, the superficial epidermis moves along with the nail plate as it grows. Vertical grooves attach the superficial epidermis to the deep dermis. In older people, the nail plate thins out and you can see the grooves if you look closely. Blood vessels and nerves run through the nail bed.
The nail (or “germinal”) matrix: the portion or root at the base of the nail under the cuticle that produces new cells for the nail plate. You can see a portion of the matrix in the light half-moon (the “lunula”) visible at the base of the nail plate. This determines the shape and thickness of the nail; a curved matrix produces a curved nail, a flat one produces a flat nail.
An ingrown toenail occurs when the edge of the nail grows downward and into the skin of the toe. It can occur for a number of reasons, but poorly fitting shoes and poorly trimmed toenails are the most common causes. The big toe is usually affected, but any toenail can become ingrown.
Symptoms of an Ingrown Toenail
The skin along the edge of a toenail that is ingrown may appear:
- Warm to the touch
These are signs not only of pressure on the skin, but also the beginning of an infection. If not treated, the condition worsens, possibly even leading to the drainage of pus.
Ingrown Toenails and Your Shoes
Shoes that are either too tight or too loose can cause ingrown toenails. If too loose, it causes continual pounding of your big toe against the inside due to movement within the shoe as you walk. With shoes that are too small for your foot (or even high heels), extra pressure is placed on your toes which prevents normal nail growth.
Nails that are not trimmed properly can also cause ingrown toenails. This happens when your toenails are trimmed too short or you cut your toenails in a rounded fashion instead of straight across. Rounded cuts are appropriate for fingernails, but not toenails. The edges of the nails will tend to curl downward and grow right into the skin.
While the above problems can be rectified, some less avoidable factors like heredity, injuries, or medical conditions may also cause ingrown toenails. Some people are born with nails that are curved and naturally tend to curve inward. Injuries to the nail bed can also cause ingrown toenails, especially if it affects the germinal matrix, the living part of the nail that produces new cells.
People with diabetes or other illnesses that cause poor circulation are also at higher risk for these problems. A diabetic, for example, may experience nerve damage and not realize that excessive pressure is being applied to the toes by ill-fitting shoes. They may not even notice that the nail is growing into the skin.
Of course, in normal times, there are doctors like podiatrists or orthopedic specialists you should visit to deal with the problem. Off the grid, however, here’s some tips on how to treat an ingrown nail:
- Soak the foot in warm water with Epsom salts 3 to 4 times a day. In between soaks, keep the toe dry.
- Use an antiseptic to decrease the bacterial count in the area
- Place a small piece of moist cotton, waxed dental floss, or other material under the nail to help it grow away from the skin.
- Consider wearing sandals until improved.
At some point, you may have no choice but to intervene more aggressively. In these circumstances, you may have to remove the offending segment of nail.
Take the ingrown curved side, about 1/5 of the nail plate width or less. You may have to cut all the way down to the base in some cases. This procedure is more easily done after injecting some numbing medicine into the area, such as lidocaine. Avoid lidocaine with epinephrine; it may compromise the circulation and possibly lead to gangrene. If you have plain lidocaine, consider establishing a “digital block”, seen below:
After Ingrown Toenail Removal
If the toe is infected, antibiotics might be appropriate. Triple antibiotic ointment may be helpful here, but oral antibiotics, such as Keflex (fish-flex), Clindamycin (Fish-Cin) and Amoxicillin (fish-mox forte) may be necessary. For more information about antibiotics, go here for the first of a 4 part series.
If a portion of the nail is cut off, patience is required as it will take months for the nail to regrow. If you have a genetic tendency toward ingrown toenails, be prepared to deal with recurrences.
Wearing properly-fitted and protective shoes, managing medical conditions, and teaching appropriate foot grooming methods will make sure that the steps on your journey to medical preparedness won’t be painful ones.
For my youtube video on this topic, click below:
Joe Alton MD
Find out more about ingrown toenails and 150 other medical topics when help is not on the way in “The Survival Medicine Handbook: The Essential Guide for When Medical Help is Not on the Way”, now in its award-winning Third Edition.