7 Possible Causes of Fingernail Pain and How to Treat It

If you’re wondering “why do my nails hurt?” you’ve come to the right place. Here, experts answer your question, offering a range of reasons and treatments for each. 

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There are certain body parts you expect will hurt at some point in life, such as your calves following an especially intense hills run or your shoulders after a heavy lifting season. But odds are your nails aren't one of them — after all, nails are supposed to be made of dead skin cells. So, what's the deal if you find yourself asking "why do my nails hurt?"

Fingernail pain, albeit oftentimes confusing and seemingly random, happens more often than you might realize. In fact, dermatologists "see it pretty often," says Teo Soleymani, M.D., a dermatologist at UCLA Health. But despite such prevalence, if your appendages are aching, you're likely eager to, err, nail down the answer to your question, "why do my nails hurt?" Good news: You've come to the right place.

Ahead, experts explain seven potential reasons for your nail discomfort and how to treat each.

What Are Fingernails Made Of?

Your fingernails are made of laminated layers of a protein called keratin, according to the Mayo Clinic. They grow from the area at the base of your nail under your cuticle. Meaning, your nails actually start off as living cells although the part that ends up peeking through is composed of dead cells.

But the skin underneath that nail plate — which is called your nail bed — is actually alive and filled with sensitive nerve endings and blood vessels. That's why "when you press on the nail or something penetrates the nail bed, you will feel a sensation or pain," explains board-certified dermatologist Ife J. Rodney, M.D., founding director of Eternal Dermatology Aesthetics and professor of dermatology at Howard University and George Washington University. And as with any other area of the body, there are different degrees of nail pain — achiness, throbbing, soreness, etc. — depending on the cause and your sensitivity.

7 Reasons You're Experiencing Fingernail Pain

There are a bunch of different answers to your question, "why do my nails hurt?" and each operates a little differently. Here's a breakdown of some of the more common causes of fingernail pain you may come across:

1. Paronychia

Paronychia is a fancy name for a skin infection that occurs around your nails, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM). This infection can be caused by bacteria, a type of yeast called candida (the same one that causes a yeast infection down under), and fungi — all of which can get into your skin as a result of biting your nails, picking a hangnail, trimming or pushing back the cuticle, and over-exposing your nails to water.

The main characteristic of paronychia is a painful, red, swollen area around the nail (usually at the cuticle), but it can sometimes involve nail discoloration and pus-filled blisters, especially if it is a bacterial infection. Overall, your nails may end up feeling hot or throbbing from the infection, says New York-based dermatologist Gary Goldenberg, M.D. And while treatment is pretty easy, if paronychia goes untreated for weeks, your nail can actually detach from the nail bed, says Dr. Rodney. (

How to treat fingernail pain: Soaking your infected nail in warm water a few times a day can help tamp down on inflammation, says Dr. Rodney. Pain medication such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), topical prescription antibiotics, such as amoxicillin (for bacterial infections), or Rx or OTC antifungal creams, such as clotrimazole (for fungal infections), can also help, she adds. If the infection is really painful, looks like it has spread, and is causing a fever or joint pain, you might need oral antibiotics, says Dr. Rodney. Once you get treatment, symptoms can clear up in a few days, she says. But severe cases can take weeks to months to clear up entirely.

2. Fungal Nail Infection

Although they're more common on toenails, fungal nail infections, known as onychomycosis, can also happen on fingernails, says Dr. Soleymani. No matter the location, this condition can result in the nail becoming discolored (usually yellow), thick, and more likely to crack or break, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Fungal nail infections can be caused by different types of yeasts or molds that live in the environment, and they tend to get into your nail through cracks in your nail or the surrounding skin. This is different from paronychia in that onychomycosis actually occurs under (vs. around) your nails.

Now, if you're wondering "why do my nails hurt?" and the aforementioned symptoms sound familiar, your discomfort might very well be the result of onychomycosis. After all, such an infection can cause especially sharp pain, redness, swelling, and tenderness to the touch, notes Dr. Rodney. That being said, it's also entirely possible to have a fungal nail infection that doesn't hurt at all (it just might look, well, gross).

How to treat fingernail pain: These infections are "stubborn to treat," as the nail plate is a natural barrier that makes it difficult for medication to penetrate and target the condition, explains Dr. Soleymani. "In most cases, we prescribe Jublia, which is a topical antifungal cream," says Dr. Rodney. If that doesn't do the trick, though, oral antifungal medication such as Sporanox, Diflucan, and Nizoral may be needed. It's important to note, though, that these oral "medications can damage the liver, so patients must have their liver checked first before [filling] the prescription," she notes. "[That said,] these drugs can help clear up infections in a few months." But because the fungus can just be out and about in the environment (read: threatening to keep that nail infection alive and well), you might need more than a few rounds of treatment to effectively get rid of onychomycosis, adds Dr. Soleymani. (See also: The 6 Best Nail Fungus Treatments to Finally Get Clear, Clean Nails)

3. Gel Manicure

Suffering from nail pain but can't seem to find the cause? Your monthly gel manicure might be to blame. "Something in the gel chemical composition thins the nails and makes them more brittle over time, but it's not entirely clear why this happens," explains Dr. Soleymani. "The curing process [which is what happens when you put your nails under UV light after the polish is applied] seems to cause a lot of bleeding under the nails, and that's painful." Patients don't often realize there is bleeding underneath the nails until the gall polish is removed.

While it does not specifically recommend against gel manicures or mention pain or bleeding, the Academy of Dermatology (AAD) warns that these longer-lasting treatments can be "tough on nails." The organization also notes that gel manicures can cause nail brittleness, peeling, and cracking — all of which can increase your risk for fingernail pain.

How to treat fingernail pain: In general, you might want to get gel manicures in "moderation," reserving them for "special occasions only," according to the AAD. You can also just skip them overall and opt instead for a regular mani. Just like with the gel option, though, resist the urge to peel off your polish, as doing so can wreck your nails. That said, if you do experience post-gel-mani pain, time might be the best course of treatment, says Dr. Soleymani. It can take weeks for the nails to heal — think: the aching to ease up and bleeding to stop — but you can lessen any discomfort by taking acetaminophen (e.g. Tylenol) or icing your nails, recommends Dr. Soleymani. (

4. Hangnail

A hangnail is a small, ripped piece of skin that juts out near the cuticles, says Dr. Rodney. They can be caused by dry air, alcohol-based hand sanitizers, constant hand washing, as well as biting or picking at your nails. While a hangnail isn't technically part of your nails, it's close enough for you to feel some serious, throbbing pain in the area (as if it's related to your nails) if you happen to be unlucky enough to develop one. "It can feel raw, tender, irritating, and sometimes painful," says Dr. Rodney. "If left untreated, you may notice some slight redness, swelling, and tenderness. Whatever you do, resist the urge to rip off the hangnail — this can really hurt and leave you open to infection."

How to treat fingernail pain: First, clean and soften the hangnail with warm, soapy water. Then, use a pair of sterile nail clippers to gently remove the piece of skin with a clean, making sure to not cut your cuticles, says Dr. Rodney. Try not to press too deep, as this can cause bleeding, according to the Cleveland Clinic. If that ends up happening, though, clean the area with mild soap and water and apply pressure until the bleeding stops, recommends Dr. Rodney. If it doesn't bleed or once the bleeding stops, moisturize the area with vitamin E, petroleum jelly, or cuticle oil to prevent dryness from causing more issues; you can also cover the area with an antibiotic cream to help protect against infection.

5. Trauma

"Nail bed injuries are particularly painful since they happen due to a sudden blow, cut, or crushing action," says Dr. Rodney. They usually cause bleeding beneath the nail plate, which can leave a deep red, dark brown, or black color that shows through your nail. "In addition, the nail plate sometimes detaches from the nail bed, causing significant pain," because the nail bed is home to a bunch of nerve endings, she adds. If your nail bed detaches or rips off, it will expose those nerve endings and open you up to plenty of pain.

How to treat fingernail pain: If your nail bed injury is more minor (it's mildly uncomfortable, but there's no cracking of the nail bed), it should just heal on its own, says Dr. Rodney. But if your nail bed is filled with blood and there's damage such as cracking of the nail bed, it needs to be surgically treated by a doctor either at their office or in an operating room. In this case, your practitioner will remove the damaged nail plate and repair the nail bed and, "over nine to 12 months, the nail can regrow," explains Dr. Rodney. "If there is damage beyond the nail bed — for instance, a broken finger — then the patient would need to visit an O.R." (

6. Psoriasis

Psoriasis is an autoimmune disease that causes dry, thick, raised patches to form on the skin, according to the AAD. Psoriasis "can affect the nails as well, leading to separation of the nail from the nail bed and associated discomfort," says Joshua Zeichner, M.D., a New York City board-certified dermatologist and director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center. (

Nail psoriasis is simply another form of psoriasis — and it usually starts years after someone develops psoriasis on their skin, according to the AAD. "The nails tend to look like brittle, crumbly nails," says Dr. Soleymani. "The nail can almost look like it's disintegrating." This can cause a painful throbbing feeling or nothing at all — it really depends on the person and the severity of their condition.

How to treat fingernail pain: Doctors will usually start with topical steroid treatments to try to calm the inflammation, says Dr. Soleymani. If that doesn't work, they may try to inject corticosteroids into the nail matrix, which is the area where your fingernails start to grow. And if that doesn't work after a few weeks, your doctor may recommend that you have a biologic medication, which is a systemic medication that's typically used to treat psoriasis, such as infliximab or adalimumab, to try to help suppress the inflammation that's causing the damage, he says.

7. Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is a "big cause" of nail damage and nail pain, according to Dr. Soleymani. A lot of chemotherapies target rapidly-dividing cells (a type of cancer cells), and the stem cells of your nails in your nail matrix (i.e. the base and sides of your nails where your nails form) aren't exempt. Chemotherapy can also impact the fine blood vessels of the nail bed, causing damage and pain, he says. "With chemotherapy, nails are darker, thinner, brittle, and feel like they can easily fall off," explains Dr. Rodney. "In some cases, they do, exposing the nail bed, which can be painful, tender, and swollen." (See also: What to Do If Your Toenail Is Falling Off)

How to treat fingernail pain: Dr. Soleymani recommends putting ice packs on the nails during chemotherapy infusions and afterward to try to help ward off pain. "Keeping the nail beds and nail plates moisturized with hand lotion can help, too," he says.

If you're having nail pain, dermatologists say it's important to get it checked out — and that's especially true if you're seriously uncomfortable. "If the pain is acute and there's evidence of infection — there's inflammation, it's warm to the touch, or the pain seems to be getting worse —seek care right away," says Dr. Goldenberg. If your nails have been hurting for several weeks but it's mostly manageable and you're not getting relief, Dr. Rodney recommends calling your doctor.

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