Cold weather brings about a lot of changes in how healthy we feel. From seasonal affective disorder (SAD) to the flu, it seems like the season can wreak havoc on our bodies.

A small, yet annoying, sign that winter is here are hangnails. Those ragged little pieces of skin you find around your nails can be annoying and become irritated if not taken care of properly.

Family medicine specialist Neha Vyas, MD, talks about how to remove a hangnail, what not to do and how to prevent hangnails in the first place.

What is a hangnail?

Even though it’s called a hangnail, that little piece of skin isn’t part of the nail. Instead, it’s a torn piece of skin that hangs loose next to your nails. And it’s rare to have hangnails on your toes, though, it does happen from time to time.

“A hangnail is really short,” says Dr. Vyas. “It’s kind of stiff and it arises from the side of your nail bed.”

Hangnails can be caused by dry air, using alcohol-based hand sanitizers (which we still need to use!) and constant hand washing (which we also still need to do!).

Those with a habit of picking or biting around their nails are likely to get hangnails. Swimming in a chlorinated pool can also cause your skin to dry out and lead to hangnails.

If you enjoy a manicure every now and then, make sure you’re not cutting your cuticles but pushing them back instead. Cutting your cuticles can lead to hangnails and infections.

How to remove a hangnail

Follow these steps to safely remove a hangnail.

  1. Wash your hands. Start with a clean slate. “Soften up your hands by putting them in warm, soapy water,” says Dr. Vyas.
  2. Moisturize your hands. After drying your hands, Dr. Vyas suggests massaging petroleum jelly or another kind of moisturizer onto your hands, focusing on the hangnail area.
  3. Gently clip the hangnail. Use a pair of sterile nail clippers or cuticle cutters to gently clip the hangnail off, says Dr. Vyas. Try not to press too deep, as that can causing bleeding. If that does happen, apply pressure to the area until the bleeding stops.
  4. Moisturize again. You can apply another layer of petroleum jelly or use an antibiotic cream to help protect the hangnail area from infection.

What to avoid doing for a hangnail

You may be tempted for a quick fix, but don’t bite, tear, rip or chew off your hangnail, says Dr. Vyas.

“There’s nerves and blood vessels under the hangnail,” says Dr. Vyas. “So you can cause your own bleeding, infection and pain.”

If your hangnail gets infected, you may experience red, irritated skin around the hangnail area. If the infection spreads or worsens, you may get a fever and chills.

A regular hangnail doesn’t typically require a visit to the doctor’s office, but talk to your doctor if you experience the following:

  • You have diabetes.
  • You have a medical condition that causes you to bleed a lot.
  • The hangnail doesn’t heal on its own in a week.
  • The infection moves from the hangnail to further down the nail or finger.
  • Your nail changes color or becomes weak.

Your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic depending on the level of infection.

How to prevent hangnails

Hangnails are easy to prevent. Use these tips to keep the skin on your hands in the best shape:

  • Wear gloves when washing dishes.
  • Don’t cut your cuticles.
  • Avoid using acetone products like nail polish remover.
  • Moisturize your hands daily.
  • Apply a thicker cream to hands at night.

“The dry air and frequent hand-washing can cause you to be more likely to get a hangnail,” says Dr. Vyas. “Using moisturizer daily can help.”

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