Hung up over painful hangnail

Originally Published: February 7, 2003 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: March 7, 2013
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Dear Alice,

I have a hang nail that has caused my finger to become very sore and swollen. What should I do for it?

Dear Reader,

Hangnails are triangular flaps of skin that have separated from around the fingernail or cuticle area. They can be more than annoying — hangnails can be a regular source of discomfort, and possibly even pain.

In your question, describing your hangnail as "very sore and swollen" sounds as though it could be infected. Applying antibacterial ointment or cream after you clean and dry your hangnail and bandaging it all together can help it to heal. After a few days of this regimen, your hang nail should hang up the phone and go away.

Preventing hangnails will help you avoid a similar situation from happening in the future.

  • Massage moisturizer into your hands, fingers, nails, and cuticles several times a day. Hangnails are more likely to develop when skin is dry.
  • If your hands are exposed to water, cleansers, and/or other chemicals often, wear a pair of rubber or plastic gloves to protect the skin on your hands.
  • Avoid trimming cuticles, which could lead to infection.
  • As soon as you notice a hangnail, soften your skin by soaking your hands in a water-and-oil solution. Then trim the hangnail with a pair of sterile, sharp cuticle scissors. This will help deter the nagging tendency to want to pick at or chew off a hangnail, which can create a bigger tear and increase your risk for infection.

If you notice that your hangnail is not getting better or is actually getting worse, consulting your health care provider would be a good idea to evaluate your condition and come up with appropriate treatment. Columbia students on the Morningside campus can make an appointment at Medical Services online through Open Communicator, or by calling 212-854-2284. Students on the Medical Center campus can reach out to the Student Health Service by calling 212-305-3400. 

Waving goodbye for now,

Alice