They’re sometimes painful and always unattractive. What causes hangnails, and what can you do about them?
They’re unattractive and, at times, even painful. Hangnails are a common problem for both men and women. Most people have had one at some time or other, but what causes hangnails?
What is a Hangnail?
A hangnail is a small piece of torn skin that hangs off the cuticle of a fingernail. Not only are they not very pretty to look at, a hangnail can be painful if you pull on it, or if it catches on something. They can also become infected, causing a condition known as paronychia where bacteria or fungi enter the small skin tear that makes up a hangnail. This is more common in people who bite their fingernails, which introduces mouth bacteria into the region.
What Causes Hangnails?
Hangnails can be caused by a bad manicure – especially if the manicurist pushes back the cuticle too aggressively or cuts along the edge of the cuticle with scissors. Another cause of hangnails is simply dry skin. Anything that dries the skin out such as harsh detergents or repeated exposure to water can irritate the cuticle and cause a hangnail to appear. Hangnails are more common in hairdressers, dishwashers, and swimmers because they expose their hands to excessive moisture, detergents, and chemicals. Nail biting can also damage the cuticle and increase the risk of pesky hangnails – as well as hangnail infections.
Nail Biting as a Cause of Hangnails
Nail biters not only get more hangnails, they also have a higher incidence of paronyhia. When these infections around the hangnail or fingernail occur, the area becomes red, swollen, and painful. If left untreated, the infection can spread further into the tissues of the finger and require surgery to remove the infected tissue. Fortunately, antibiotics or antifungals usually treat this problem if it’s diagnosed early.
Treating and Preventing Hangnails
Use sterile manicure scissors to carefully trim away any skin that’s sticking out, so it won’t get hung on something. Don’t trim or cut the cuticle. Apply a small amount of antibiotic cream to the hangnail and place a protective bandage over it. Check it frequently for redness, swelling, or other signs of infection. If they develop, see your doctor immediately.
To prevent hangnails in the future, wear rubber gloves if you expose your hands to water and apply a moisturizing lotion three times a day – and stop biting your nails.
Emedicine website. “Paronychia”
Merck Manual. Eighteenth edition. 2006.