If your toenail is about to fall off, you’re probably thinking “Help!” in sheer panic and making the same face as the “scream” emoji. But when it comes to losing one of these little guys, it pays to take a chill pill and wait. Here’s everything you need to know about the super-common issue of losing a toenail.
Reasons why you’re losing a toenail
An infection: “A fungal infection occurs when there’s an overgrowth of fungi under or on the nail. Fungi love warm, moist environments, which is why they are so common on toenails,” explains Dr. Sonia Batra, a dermatologist and co host on the show The Doctors. Symptoms of an infection include yellowing and streaking on the nail, a flaky nail surface, and crumbling nails. Left untreated, the nail can detach from the nail bed entirely, she explains.
Trauma or injury: No infection? Any sort of trauma to the toe—such as a heavy object landing on it or a hard stub—can also cause the nail to fall off. “The nail will likely turn dark or black as blood builds up underneath it and puts pressure on it. It will likely fall off in a few weeks,” she says.
And, for all you avid runners: It’s not uncommon to lose a toenail from logging lots of training miles. “The repetitious action of your toe hitting the front of the shoe can cause injury to the nail, and cause it to eventually fall off,” says Dr. Batra. “Distance runners training for marathons often experience this, as well as those who are running in ill-fitting shoes or whose toenails are too long.” (Read: Why running is good for you?).
How to deal with a toenail that’s falling off
If it looks like your nail is headed for danger, resist the urge to tear it off. “Don’t rip off a broken toenail if it’s not ready,” says Dr. Batra. “If it’s barely attached and just hanging on, it should be fine to gently remove it with clippers.” If you have doubts, though, it is best to leave it alone. Just file down any rough edges to keep them from catching on anything, treat any bleeding from the tear, clean the area, and make sure to monitor it for any signs of infection. (Read: Fashion choices that are bad for your health).
Your nail’s gone — now what?
“If your toenail falls off and it’s bleeding, the first thing to do is apply pressure to the area until it stops bleeding. Then clean the skin underneath with soap and water and apply an antibiotic ointment to prevent infection before covering the open wound with a bandage,” says Dr. Batra. Keep the area clean and covered until the wound closes and heals.
If there are open cuts or tears in the underlying skin from the nail coming off, you should keep the skin cleaned and covered to prevent bacteria from entering and causing infection, she says. Once all open wounds have healed, it’s fine to leave the area uncovered—just make sure to keep it clean and dry.
It’s worth giving your toe a little extra TLC because you definitely don’t want an infection to spread to the new nail growing in.
“Redness/drainage/excessive pain could be signs of infection but not always,” says Dr. Said Atway, a podiatrist. “The consequences of a bacterial infection in the toe are the same as the consequences of any other skin/soft tissue infection in that the infection could spread and lead to further detriment of the surrounding tissue,” he says. Obviously, not great—so if you think it could be infected, go get it looked at by a doc.
(Related: Cuticle care tips for healthy nails).
How to keep the new nail safe
You’ll start to see a new nail coming in after about six weeks (yay!), but it’ll grow at your normal nail growth rate, says Dr. Batra. It usually takes about a year for a toenail to grow back out (from cuticle to tip). Here’s how to monitor the progress:
- If you’re not sure why your toenail fell off in the first place, be sure to identify and fix the issue before the new one comes in, or else it could be susceptible to the same thing.
- If you lost the old toenail to a fungal infection, treat the new nail with antifungal medication too.
- Keep the new nail smooth and filed to keep ragged edges from catching on socks and breaking further.
- Keep your feet dry, change your socks often, and avoid going barefoot in public locker rooms to prevent infections.
- Wash your feet every day with soap and water and choose breathable socks.
- If the new nail grows back crooked or damaged, see a doctor.
- If there’s thickening or discoloration, keep the area clean and dry and use over-the-counter antifungal medications. If it doesn’t clear, see a doctor for stronger antifungal cream.
What about nail polish?
Even though it’s tempting to swipe on some red polish and pretend everything is ~fine~, you should avoid painting the new nail if possible. “If you have a big event coming up, you can paint the new toenail,” says Dr. Batra. “However, nail polish prevents maximum airflow to the nail, so the best way to ensure healthy regrowth is to keep the nail free of polish until it’s fully grown in. If the toenail is falling off from injury, painting the new one isn’t too risky. But if it’s falling off from a fungal infection, you’ll likely make the infection harder to treat, she warns. Not to mention, “acetone-containing nail polish remover can also weaken the new nail plate as it grows in and make it more susceptible to infection,” she says.
You’re probably fine painting the skin while you’re waiting for the new nail to grow in. “Nail polish won’t damage the skin as long as it is healthy and there are no open cuts, blisters, or infections,” says Dr. Batra.
How about an acrylic nail?
“If you lost your nail due to fungus, don’t get an acrylic toenail applied—it’ll make the problem worse as it provides a moist and warm safe haven for fungal infections,” says Dr. Batra.
If you lost it due to injury, however, an acrylic toenail is an option for a short-term fix (like a wedding), says Dr. Batra, but acrylic nails can interfere with optimal regrowth of the real nail. So consider stepping away from the nail glue and letting your body do its thing instead.
You can take some steps to heal from the inside-out too. “You can also take a biotin supplement, which helps strengthen nails and hair,” says Dr. Batra. “A healthy diet rich in protein may also help—the building blocks of keratin are found in foods like quinoa, lean meats, eggs, and yogurt,” she says.
Otherwise, you just have to wait; there are no other effective quick fixes to get nails to grow faster, says Dr. Batra. You may hate having a naked toe for a few months, but it’s #worthit for the nail to grow in healthy, straight, and strong.