Cellulitis is a bacterial skin infection that often affects the legs and feet. A person may develop cellulitis in the toenails due to another infection, such as athlete’s foot, or as a symptom of an ingrown toenail.

The bacteria that cause cellulitis cause infection in the deep layers of skin and tissue. The infection can occur anywhere on the body but commonly affects the legs and feet.

Infections in the foot or conditions, such as ingrown toenails, may lead to cellulitis. Without treatment, cellulitis can lead to serious complications, such as blood, muscle, and bone infections.

This article examines the symptoms of cellulitis in toenails, the severity, causes, and treatments of the infection, and when to contact a doctor.

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If cellulitis occurs in the toenails, the infection can cause changes in the skin around the nails, which may include:

Other symptoms of a more severe infection can include:

A cellulitis infection may be dangerous without treatment, as it can lead to severe complications.

Although uncommon, cellulitis may lead to potentially severe conditions such as:

  • osteomyelitis — an infection and inflammation of the bone
  • bacteremia — a bacterial blood infection
  • thrombophlebitis — swelling in the veins due to blood clotting
  • endocarditis — inflammation of the lining of the heart valves, muscles, and chambers
  • suppurative arthritis — a bacterial infection in a joint

Bacterial infection is the cause of cellulitis. If the bacteria that cause the infection enter through broken skin near the toenail, cellulitis may develop in the area. Cellulitis may also spread from other areas to the toenail.

Experts do not always know how the bacteria that cause the infection enter the body. Potential causes of cellulitis in the toenail may include:

  • Ingrown toenails: Infection may occur in an ingrown toenail and can develop into cellulitis that affects the deeper layers of skin around the toenail.
  • Athlete’s foot: Athlete’s foot is a common fungal infection that can cause the skin between the toes to crack and bleed. The bacteria that cause cellulitis may enter through the open wounds and may result in the infection developing in the feet and toenails.
  • Eczema: Eczema near the toenails may result in broken skin, which could allow bacteria to enter. This could result in bacterial infection in the toenails, such as cellulitis.
  • Paronychia: Paronychia occurs due to bacterial infection and causes inflammation around the finger and toenails. Acute paronychia may develop into cellulitis.
  • Broken skin: Broken skin near the toenails due to any cause, such as injury, surgical wounds, injection drug use, and insect bites or stings, may allow bacteria to enter, which could result in cellulitis.

Treatment for cellulitis may vary depending on the severity of the infection, but can include:

Should a person soak a toe with cellulitis?

Soaking the toe with the infection in clean, warm, and salty water may help soften the skin around the toe and relieve pain and swelling. This can be especially helpful if an ingrown toenail is the underlying cause of the cellulitis.

A person can otherwise clean the affected area with soap and water and keep it covered and dry. If an individual has open wounds or skin infections, they need to avoid places such as:

  • hot tubs
  • swimming pools
  • natural bodies of water such as lakes and oceans

Anyone with symptoms of cellulitis needs to contact a doctor, as the treatment for the infection mainly consists of antibiotics.

If a person has a condition that may lead to cellulitis, such as athlete’s foot, an ingrown toenail, or eczema, they need to contact a doctor for treatment.

With treatment, people usually start feeling better within 2–3 days and fully recover within 10 days. If symptoms do not improve after 3 days, individuals need to seek medical attention.

Without treatment, cellulitis could develop into potentially severe conditions, such as blood, bone, and joint infections.

Cellulitis is a bacterial infection that affects deep layers of skin and tissue. The infection occurs when bacteria enter the body, typically through an area of broken skin.

Cellulitis may develop in the toenails due to conditions that cause broken skin and infection, such as ingrown toenails, athlete’s foot, paronychia, and eczema.

Anyone with symptoms of cellulitis needs to contact a doctor. Treatment for the condition typically consists of antibiotics. Without treatment, cellulitis may progress into potentially serious complications.