Besides serving as useful tools that protect our fingers and toes, our nails can also offer insight into our body’s overall status.
They’re made of a substance called keratin, which grows from a cuticle from the nail bed. Health problems can cause disruptions in nail growth that causes abnormal nail appearance. Because nails grow fairly slowly, just a few millimeters each month, it can take up to 6 months for a nail to completely regrow and replace diseased nails.
Often, nail pain is not linked to a serious health condition. Most are caused by temporary issues like injuries and irritation that resolve with treatment, and usually leave no lasting complications.
But several conditions affecting the appearance and sensation in fingernails and toenails — like clubbing and pitting— may indicate more serious health problems.
Why do my fingernails or toenails hurt?
Healthy nails are shiny and pink, and shouldn’t feel uncomfortable. Causes of nail pain resolve on their own, while others require treatment.
Nail infection (paronychia)
One common cause of nail pain is a nail infection. In addition to pain, nail infections tend to cause swelling and redness of the finger, especially around the cuticle. Nail infections may also cause the nail to thicken, and pus to drain from around the nail.
Fingernails and toenails are most often infected when bacteria enters an injury on the cuticle, nail bed, or finger. Nail infections can be serious, and in some cases require medical attention.
Fungal nail infection
When a fungus enters an injury on, under, or around the nail, a fungal nail infection can arise. In most cases, fungal nail infections are caused by the same fungus that causes athlete’s foot. But other fungi, including yeasts and molds, can affect the nails.
In addition to causing pain, fungus can make nails turn yellow or white. Other symptoms of a fungal nail infection include:
- nail thickening
- separation from the skin
If left untreated, a fungal nail infection can spread to other nails and to the skin, in rare cases causing permanent damage to the nail bed.
Ingrown nails cause the sides of the nail to curve into the skin. This painful condition can develop when nails are trimmed improperly, after an injury to the nail, or when a person wears shoes that are too short or tight. Of all nails, it seems the big toe is most likely to develop an ingrown nail.
Signs of ingrown nails include:
- infection (if left untreated)
Hangnails are not actually nails, but pieces of skin that tear off the edge of your nail. Hangnails are a common type of painful nail condition with a variety of possible causes, including
- nail biting
- dry skin
- irritating soaps
- cold temperatures
Hangnails might bleed. It’s important not to rip off hangnails, as doing so puts you at risk of an infection.
While nails are strong, they can be injured when something heavy falls on them or when they get caught in a door. These injuries are usually painful when they happen, because there are many nerves under and around the nails.
Sometimes, a physical injury to the nail causes bruising, or may cause the nail to fall off before it regrows. A bruised nail may feel tender as it heals.
Nail biting can leave fingertips red and painful, and can make cuticles bleed. What’s more, nail biting (which includes biting the skin around the nail, and the cuticle) increases risk of nail infections. Usually, quitting nail-biting is enough to stop the painful symptoms it causes.
Some nail abnormalities are genetic, some are caused by disease, and others arise due to external factors like poor-fitting shoes or nail-biting. Habitual trimming or pushing cuticles can also cause abnormalities. Some, such as hooked nails, can cause pain.
Pain by location
The location of your nail pain can sometimes offer insight into its cause.
Why does the side or corner of my nail hurt?
Pain on the side or corner of a nail may be caused by:
- hangnail (especially when it’s near a big toe)
- nail biting
- ingrown nails
- nail injuries
Why do my nail beds hurt?
When your pain affects your nail bed, beneath your nail, most often it’s caused by:
- fungal nail infection
- nail abnormality
- physical injury
Why do my cuticles hurt?
Cuticle pain can be caused by:
- physical injury
- fungal nail infection
- nail abnormality
Cuticles are an important part of the nail, as they help protect new nail as it grows out. It’s important to properly care for your cuticles to keep them healthy.
Why do my nails hurt after getting them done?
Manicures and pedicures are a popular way to care for and embellish the nails of the hands and feet. While a professional nail treatment can be a healthy part of a nail-care routine, salons lacking high standards can leave your nails at risk of pain and other problems.
The most common reasons for nail pain following a manicure or pedicure are nail infections and injuries. It can be helpful to take your own clippers and other nail tools to the salon to avoid exposure to bacteria or fungus carried on others’ nails.
Why do my nails hurt when I put on or take off nail polish?
Nail polish and nail-polish remover contain chemicals that can leave the nails dried out, causing hangnails. Pain that lasts for only a short time after applying or removing nail polish is likely caused by irritation that will resolve.
When painting your nails or removing polish, try to only work on your nails. Avoid getting polish and remover under your nails, on your cuticles, and on your fingers. Using natural nail polishes and removers, and regularly moisturizing your hands, can reduce discomfort.
Why do my acrylic nails hurt?
The process of applying acrylic nails can cause damage to the nail, leading to pain.
In most cases those who prepare to apply acrylic nails begin by cutting down the cuticle of the nail, and filing down the nail. This leaves the nail prone to infections.
Additionally, gluing on nail extensions and adding acrylic can cause irritation and dryness, leading to hangnails, ingrown nails, and nail deformities. Less damaging alternatives to acrylic nails include gel nail extensions and dip powder.
Treating the underlying cause
Nail pain is a nuisance. With treatment, your nails can go back to feeling normal and looking healthy.
Hangnails, physical injuries, and nail biting
For nail pain caused by most hangnails, physical injuries, and nail biting, the best treatment is to leave your nails alone. Avoid ripping off hangnails and allow them to grow out. Maintaining good nail hygiene by cleaning and trimming nails regularly is important.
Ingrown nails and nail abnormalities
Soaking your hands or feet in warm water, choosing suitable footwear, and taking pain relievers can help ease discomfort as they heal. For ingrown nails or nail abnormalities that don’t resolve with treatment, see a doctor.
Nail infections and fungal nail infections
Infections tend to involve more treatment than other conditions causing nail pain. For infections caused by bacteria, applying an over-the-counter anti-bacterial cream on and around the infected areas of the nail and finger may be enough to resolve pain and other symptoms.
Fungal nail infections can usually be cleared by applying over-the-counter antifungal cream.
More serious infections require medical attention, with stronger antibiotics or antifungal medications. A doctor may prescribe an oral medication.
In most cases nail pain is not serious and an OTC treatment can clear up discomfort. However, in some cases, such as infection, it may be necessary to see a doctor. Maintaining good nail hygiene and avoiding nail biting can help prevent nail pain and keep nails healthy.