Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2008;77(3):347-348

See related article on paronychia.

What is paronychia?

Paronychia (pair-oh-NIE-kee-ah) is a common problem that affects fingernails and toenails. It is caused by an infection of the skin around the nail. Chronic paronychia can happen after dish washing, finger sucking, trimming the cuticles too much, or frequent contact with chemicals. In chronic paronychia, the cuticle pulls away from the nail, letting germs get under your skin (see drawing).

Who gets this problem?

People who work with water a lot are at risk. This includes house and office cleaners, laundry workers, food handlers, cooks, dishwashers, bartenders, chefs, nurses, and swimmers. People with diabetes and those who take certain medicines (such as drugs for HIV) also are at risk.

How do I know if I have paronychia?

Your doctor will look at your nails and ask you how often your hands are exposed to water and chemicals.

Some symptoms of chronic paronychia are:

  • Redness

  • Tenderness and swelling

  • Fluid under the skin around your nails

  • A thick, discolored nail

The thumb and second or third fingers of the hand you use the most are most likely to be affected.

How is it treated?

Your doctor will tell you what kind of medicine is right for you. He or she might want you to use a steroid cream that you put on your cuticle, or your doctor might prescribe pills. If you have very bad paronychia, you might need minor surgery to drain the fluid around the nail.

What can I expect?

It might take a few months for the paronychia to go away. Keep using your medicine until your doctor tells you to stop.

What can I do to keep it from coming back?

Here are some things you can do:

  • Avoid putting your hands in water or chemicals for long periods

  • Use moisturizing lotion every time you wash your hands

  • Wear rubber gloves when your hands will be in water or chemicals (gloves with cotton liners are best)

  • Keep your nails short

  • Do not suck on your fingers

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