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Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read

Paronychia is the fancy word for an infection in the skin around your nail. It can occur in your fingernails or toenails and usually affects just one nail at a time. The result is red, swollen, and painful skin around your nail. The infection is usually caused by bacteria that get into the skin.

Less commonly, it can be caused by a fungus such as candida (known as a yeast infection) or by the virus herpes simplex (the virus that causes cold sores).

When the infection is caused by bacteria, it can cause pus to collect, and you may see a yellow fluid collection or yellow crusting in and around the area.

You're more at risk of developing paronychia if you bite your nails, you have injured the skin around the nail, you have underlying skin or nail conditions, or if you do a job or spend a lot of your day where your hands are damp for an extended amount of time (such as a cleaner or pot washer). This is because it can damage or cause breaks in the skin, making it easier for bacteria to get in. Wearing false nails can also put you at a higher risk of paronychia.

Is it contagious?

Paronychia is not contagious, but you need to keep the area clean and dry as if it is caused by bacteria or fungus, it could get into any other breaks in the skin, causing further skin infection.

Healthwords pharmacists' top tips

If you have developed paronychia, keeping the area as dry and clean as possible is essential. You can take over-the-counter pain relief, such as acetaminophen, as well as using heat on the area. The best way to do this is to use a clean washcloth soaked in warm water and applied to the area up to four times a day for around 5 or 10 minutes.

Make sure to dry the area well once you have done this. The heat can not only help with pain but can also help to draw out any pus that may have developed to the surface. If you need to have your hands in water, it is best to wear rubber gloves to keep the area dry and take them off as soon as you have finished.

When should I see my doctor?

You should see your doctor if you think you have paronychia. This is because most cases are caused by bacteria, so can be treated easily with antibiotics (either in cream or tablet form). If you have had the infection for a long time, it can cause damage to the nail and result in what's known as chronic paronychia, which can be a bit more difficult to treat.

What will my doctor do?

The doctor will ask about your symptoms and any significant medical history. They will also examine your finger. Depending on the likely cause and severity, they may prescribe antibiotic cream or tablets. If you have a collection of pus, your doctor may refer you to get this drained to aid healing. If the cause of the paronychia is unclear, your symptoms have not improved with antibiotics, or you have chronic or severe paronychia, the doctor may take swabs of the area to find the cause and to guide the appropriate treatment.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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