Why are fingernails and toenails important?
Well, what else would you file and polish at those all-important manicure and pedicure
parties? Seriously, though, fingernails and toenails are on the front lines. In fact, you may not realize how much you depend upon your nails until you get an injury or infection that limits your use of them. Think about the things you do every day: walking, typing on a keyboard, writing a note to a friend, picking up your keys, opening a soda can, zipping up your jeans. Your nails help you do all those things—and much more. They take a lot of abuse!
If you've ever accidentally cut your nails too short or torn a nail, you know that the skin underneath is super-sensitive. It's the nail's job to protect that tender skin. So why doesn't it hurt to cut or file your nails? The cells that make up your fingernails and toenails are dead—just like your hair
or the skin that flakes off when you rub yourself with a towel. But nails grow from living skin cells under your cuticles
. That's why it hurts so much if you smash your finger or toe near the base of the nail, and why the nail grows out funny after such an injury—you've damaged the nail where it starts to grow.
Sudden changes in the way your nails look can be the first sign of an illness. White, cloud-like marks are the result of a minor injury and will go away as your nail grows. Fungal infections can turn your nails yellow, gray, brown, or black. Show your health professional or an adult you trust any changes in color or markings on your nails. back to top
What is a bacterial infection?
Redness, swelling, and pain in the skin around the nail could mean that you have a bacterial infection or yeast infection called paronychia.
Bacterial or yeast infections are caused by dirty manicure or pedicure equipment, or by having your hands in water (especially dishwater) or chemicals a lot. You can also get paronychia if you pick at or bite the skin around your nails.
Some minor infections go away by themselves. But some infections need a health professional's treatment, such as an ointment that you put on your nails every day until the infection has cleared up. If you have a severe infection, your health professional may want you to take an antibiotic
pill. back to top
What is nail fungus?
No, it's not mushrooms growing out of your dirty sneakers. Nail fungus is an organism that invades the skin under the nail. You could get nail fungus from dirty manicure or pedicure equipment, from wearing shoes or socks that are too tight, or after an injury like slamming your finger in a door. If you wear acrylic nails, you are more likely to get a fungal infection.
Nails that have fungus turn brown or yellowish and thick. A nail with a fungal infection might ooze pus, and it probably hurts to touch.
Nail fungus does not go away by itself. If you think you might have nail fungus, see your health professional. If nail fungus is caught early, you may be able to treat it with topical
creams or ointments that you rub on and around the nail. Or you may need to treat it with pills that you take by mouth (your health professional will prescribe these). If you've had the nail fungus for some time and it's very painful, the nail might have to be removed by a health professional in order for your body to heal. back to top
What is an ingrown toenail?
When the sides of a toenail grow down into the skin around the nail, causing it to become red, puffy, and painful, it's called an ingrown toenail. Ingrown toenails usually grow out in time. But, boy do they hurt! Try soaking your foot in warm water and placing a little piece of cotton ball under the corner of the nail. Put some antibiotic
ointment on it before you go to bed at night. Don't dig the corner of the nail out of the skin with a nail file or other object. You could cause an infection.
If the ingrown nail gets worse—if it hurts and swells a lot—you might need to see your health professional to get the ingrown part of the nail cut off. (Don't try to do this yourself!) To prevent ingrown toenails, be sure to cut your toenails straight across (not down at the corners) and avoid wearing tight shoes. back to top
How can I keep my nails healthy?
Are manicures and pedicures OK?
- Keep your nails clean and dry.
- Soak your toes or fingers in warm water before cutting your nails if they are hard to cut.
- Cut nails straight across and round slightly at the edges with a file or emery board.
- Don't cut your nails too short.
- Avoid biting your nails.
- Wear clean socks made of natural fibers, like cotton or wool.
- Wear shoes that fit properly. back to top
If you get manicures and pedicures in a salon, make sure the tools are soaking in sterilizing solution between customers. If the salon doesn't sterilize those cuticle cutters and files, you could get an infection. If you get manicures and pedicures often, you may want to buy your own tools and bring them with you to the salon just to be safe.
If you do your own manicures and pedicures at home, be gentle. Don't poke or push at the skin around your nails or at your cuticles so much that they become irritated or tear. If you wear colored nail polish, give your nails a breather every couple weeks by leaving them unpolished for a day or two. Let those nails get some air. You may not notice a growing infection if you keep your nails polished all the time.
If you wear acrylic nails, remove them once in a while and let your nails grow out naturally for a few weeks. Keeping fake nails on all the time can cause the real nails underneath to get soft, leaving them at greater risk of infection. back to top
How can I stop biting my nails?
Ragged, bitten nails are no way to show off that great glitter nail polish. Do another activity—like going for a bike ride, calling a friend, or drinking a glass of water
—whenever you find yourself biting a nail. Try putting a rubber band around your wrist and snapping it every time you put a finger near your mouth. Or, you can buy a bad-tasting topical
treatment at the drug store to help you stop the biting.
If you've tried everything and still can't quit, you may want to talk to a health professional about behavior modification such as hypnosis
and progressive relaxation
techniques. Behavior modification helps people quit smoking
and just might help you break the nail-biting habit. back to top
back to top
The Nail File: Fun Facts About Nails
- Nails grow about a tenth of a millimeter a day. No wonder it takes forever for them to get long!
- Your nails grow faster in the summer than they do in the winter.
- Boys' nails grow more quickly than girls' nails.
- Your fingernails grow faster than your toenails.