Although they may seem innocuous, perching silently on the tips of our feet like tiny hood ornaments, toenails do possess a sinister side. Slowly, kindly, the corners of these keratin hooligans can push into the soft tissue of your toe as they grow, morphing into the dreaded ingrown toenails.

When these ingrown toenails push into your skin, they often cause painful swelling, and this injured site can be a breeding ground for bacteria that cause potentially severe infection. Educating yourself about ingrown toenails and how to prevent them is the best way of avoiding an unpleasant visit to the foot doctor.

Causes

Ingrown toenails can be caused by a few common behaviors. Shoes and socks, believe it or not, are a major contributor to this affliction if they are so tight or ill-fitting that they put pressure on the toenail. Improper nail clipping is also an invitation to ingrowth, as it can allow the skin to overtake the nail, causing tendness and swelling.

Injuries can also be a factor. Although we all stub a toe on an end table from time to time and nothing comes of it but a little throbbing pain, if you should hit the nail in a particular grievous manner (eg, stubbing it exceptionally hard, dropping something on your toe, running over your foot with a rolling chair), the nail may become damaged and start to grow into the tissue.

Prevention

The best way of avoiding an ingrown toenail is to follow a few basic tenets of foot maintenance:

• When trimming your toenails, cut them straight across. It's particularly important that you resist the temptation to round off the corners; while you need not leave the corners at such a sharp angle that you'll be forever snagging your toe on the bed sheets, the edge of the nail should overlap the flesh just slightly. Trimming the corners too far down allows the soft tissue around the nail to engulf it as the nail grows.

• Always select proper footwear. Avoid tight socks, and when selecting shoes, ensure that there's enough wiggle room in all three dimensions at the toe. The shoe should not be putting any pressure on the top of your toe, nor should your toes be crammed tightly together.

• Keep your feet clean. This may seem like a no-brainer, but a quick and thorough once-over of your feet while you're showering is not only the best way of avoiding infection, but it's the best way to spot potential problem areas that may require the attention of a podiatrist.

Treatment

Should you find yourself bedeviled by an ingrown toenail, do not panic! Luckily, many cases can be cured with a minimum of hassle, particularly if you and your podiatrist treat it early. For ingrown toenails that are painful and swollen, simply soaking the foot in a bath of soapy water multiple times a day can sometimes be the game changer that makes everything better. In more advanced cases, where the skin has grown far over the nail or a severe infection is present, a foot doctor may prescribe antibiotic or actually remove the offending part of the nail surgically.

As with any medical condition, it's best to seek the advice of a podiatrist before you attempt to redress an ingrown toenail on your own. With a little attention and care, you can keep your little piggies wiggling with happiness all year 'round!