Infected Finger: When It's Dangerous

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This survival-medicine website provides general information, not individual advice. Most scenarios assume the victim cannot get expert medical help. Please see the disclaimer.

How a Felon Could Make You Lose a Finger

A paronychia

This is a paronychia—an infection that stays around the fingernail. It’s not as dangerous as a felon (another type of finger infection), but it still needs proper treatment so it doesn’t get worse.

by James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

If you’ve ever had a hangnail that got a little infected, you discovered you have a lot of nerve endings in your fingers. And you found out you use your hands for just about everything. Hands you’ll especially need during disasters.

Fortunately, most infected hangnails heal well as long as you keep the area dry and clean. (Gloves? Band-Aids?) But sometimes, rarely, an infected finger can get serious.

The infection can run up the finger, into your hand’s tendons, and you have a dangerous mess on your hands—literally. Or the fingertip can become so swollen that it starts cutting of the circulation, putting you in danger of losing that finger. This type of infection is called, perhaps appropriately, a felon.

Here are some tips to help you kinda know what you’re dealing with and what to do.

Paronychia: An Infection Around the Fingernail

Unless there’s a cut or scratch, most infections spring up around the cuticle, where the bacteria worked its way in. If the infection stays there—around the fingernail—it’s called a paronychia (pa-ruh-NIK-ee-uh). Who knows why? To treat a paronychia if you can’t get to a doctor:

  1. Use warm soaks on it. You can dip it in warm water or use warm, wet cloths. Do this often, for ten to twenty minutes at a time.
  2. If you’re bumping it, cover it with a adhesive bandage. Wear gloves. Splint it with a stick if you need the extra protection.
  3. Within a day of heat, it’ll either heal or come to a head, meaning the redness will localize in one corner around the nail, and a small white spot will form.
  4. Sterilize a sharp object, such as a safety pin, by holding the tip under a flame until it’s red. Or at least dip the tip in alcohol.
  5. Lightly prick the white spot. It shouldn’t hurt because you don’t stick the needle deep, just enough to let the pus out. There’s no need to stick it if there’s not that white spot. You’ll only get blood—and a risk for more infection.
  6. Apply antibiotic ointment or honey (not for babies) and an adhesive bandage.  It should be healed in another day.
  7. If this doesn’t do it, start oral antibiotics, if available.

Pretty easy stuff.

Felon: A Serious Infection in the Fingertip Pad

Rarer is the more serious felon. No, not the criminal type. This is when infection gets deep into the fingertip pad. The fingertip swells and throbs. The circulation could cut off and you could lose a finger, or the infection could spread into the hand.

To treat a felon:

  1. Get to a health-care provider if you can. Many times a felon has to be surgically opened up. The fingertip pad must be cut open to relieve the pressure. A pin’s not going to do it here.
  2. Until you can get expert treatment, start oral antibiotics.
  3. Elevate the finger about at your heart level.
  4. Warm soaks are worth a try.

Something similar to a felon is a herpetic whitlow. It’s caused by the herpes virus. As with a fever blister and genital herpes, a whitlow is recurrent and tends to cause pain and blisters, run its course, and go away. The finger pad is usually not as swollen as it is with a felon. If you catch a whitlow early, prescription antiviral medications may shorten the course.

Unless you’ve had a whitlow before, it’s going to be hard to tell the difference between that and felon. If you couldn’t get to a doctor, I’d treat it like a felon.

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Photo by Chris Craig.

  • harfe

    hello! two weeks ago i cut my hand pretty deeply, and went to the hospital and got it stitched up. all is well but today i noticed the skin around the cut turned yellow and it feels sort of tender with a bit of pain to the touch. not really all that painful, but i can see something that i recognise as pus underneath the skin and around the sutures… it’s kind of swollen too… do i need to go see a doctor asap

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Sounds like it should be checked out. By the way, usually you’ve gone back to get the stitches out within 2 weeks anyway.

      • harfe

        my appointment is in a few days actually… thank you!

  • Janice Macon

    Here is a pic

  • Latrice

    I pulled a hangnail and its been sore and swollen for 2 weeks now….what should I do?

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      See a doctor.

      • Janice Macon

        From the looks of the pic does it look bad to you? What do u think the doctor will do?

  • Donna

    Hi. I was diagnosed with an infection under my thumb nail. I was give two courses of antibiotics three weeks ago and then after the courses had finished my doctor drilled several holes in my nail. The nail has fallen off and all infection has disappeared. However for the last three days my thumb has been getting more and more swollen. It is only painful when pressure is applied, there is no sign of infection however the thumb is very swollen, red and is limited in its movement. Do you think this is just inflammation that will subside or do you think I need to go back to the doctors as there maybe something more sinister going on? Thanks

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      go back to have it rechecked.

  • kaley

    This is what my finger looks like after i popped it and soaked it in proccide. Is this normal?

  • cindy

    My finger nail caught a hole in a piece of leather. It really hurt and I could see some bleeding under the nail at the time. For the next few days it hurt to touch the nail. The pain got worse over the next couple days and the finger pad swelled and throbbed. I woke yesterday to see a small area next to the cuticle where pus had formed. The throbbing and pain really hurt so I went to an urgent care. (Weekend).

    They lanced the area on the cuticle. Physicians assistant was surprised there was hardly any pus. She, took an xray to make sure it was not in the bone and gave me antibiotics and told me to soak several times and push on fingernail to get pus out. Well there is still no day.. Still no pus, finger still throbs, can’t sleep, hurts worse than before. So swollen it is really hard. How long do I wait on antibiotics before going back. It really really hurts.

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      How long depends on the injury. Hopefully they have you and idea. In general, for general infections, I’d tell my patient to give it a couple of days but come back sooner if it started looking worse. If it’s the pad of the finger and not just around the nail that swollen and hard, I’d see a doctor today.

  • Christina

    Hey i cut the pus pocket at home with a needle pus came out.. its still hurts i dont know if i should keep squeezing it to get all the pus out.. or give it a day to heal alil.. im on antibotics already for a tooth infection.. and i bandage and put triple antibiotics ontiment on it.. should the pain be there after i cut it???

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Christine, if you mean you cut it as mentioned in #5 under paronychia, then continued heat might help. Squeezing is never a good idea unless it’s extremely gentle. If the infection is clearing, the pain should be getting better. In general, if everything is not slowly getting better, if there’s redness and swelling of the pad of the finger, or if the redness and pain or spreading, or if there’s doubts, a finger infection should be checked by a doctor.

  • Tobacco Joes

    Hi – i cut my finger filleting a trout Sunday morning. The cut is about
    an inch long and perhaps a quarter inch deep. I was on a remote lake
    with no medical attention available at the time. It bleed pretty good
    and i was able to clean the wound a little in the lake water; wrapped
    the fingertip with an antiseptic gauze pad, and then some bandage tape.
    It’s been 4.5 days now; it does not throb; it is red but not too much;
    it is swollen but only moderately. It is numb on the side of the
    fingertip where it is swollen but i thought it was because of the
    swelling in the area. The wound has sealed. I see no pus; no wierd
    lines; no migration of pain or swelling. I have not sought medical
    care. Do you feel i need to or just continue watching it and making
    sure it continues to improve? Thanks for your help – Joe

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      In general, from what you describe, it seems to be doing pretty well. But, remember, I can’t make specific recommendations without an exam. Be sure to get seen if it doesn’t continue to improve.

      • Tobacco Joes

        Thanks for your reply – when it happened, i thought it might need sticthes but i’ll accept the small scar and minor pain if it is healing properly. Again, thanks for your reply.

        • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

          Yes, so far you’re lucky. Finger wounds can get seriously infected. An lake water has no telling what types of germs. Much better to clean it with anything drinkable.

  • Aoife Mccoy

    hi ive had an infection in my cuticle for 4 months now ive been to the doctor twice ive had 2 different antibiotics and nothing is working its actually spreading up my finger now, getting very worried at this stage ive tried everything from tcp,soaking in warm water and antibiotics kept it covered while working and clean! ive another appiontment with the doctor in the morning fingers crossed its the last time i have to go see her about this :(

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      I agree, Aoife. I wish you the best. If you get a chance let me know what she decides.

  • Jamie

    I accidentally jammed a wooden BBQ skewer under my nail and a week later I got an infection. I went to the doctor and got 10 days worth of antibiotics. I went back to the doctor on day 10. He told me to keep an eye on it. Another 7 days have past…there is still a bump on my finger. It’s sore but not painful. Is this normal?

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Depending on if it’s still tender or If there are other signs you think it’s still infected, you need a recheck. For just a small bump, without tenderness, I’m not sure what else can be done. But, that’s general. I’d have to examine your finger to know for sure.

      • jkmercer

        Thanks. I’ll go get it rechecked.