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.

  • Stephanie

    So I put a bandage on my finger overnight then I woke up and took it off and my finger tip was white, wrinkly, and kinda puffy what do I do?

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      I can’t say since I don’t know what’s wrong with your finger. If you have doubts about infection or damage, see a doctor. But also know that almost anytime you keep a bandage around even a normal finger overnight, the skin will look that way. The bandage doesn’t let moisture get out, kind of like when you sit in a tub too long. The skin absorbs the dampness and swells. If that’s the case, the skin should look back to pretty normal after letting it air out an hour or so.

  • Jacob

    What should I do I have been dealing with an infection for like 4-6 days and I have got was that each day my pointer finger just has a lot of pus come out of it but today I finally do it and I have had blood come out of it but besides that for those few days my finger has also been numb

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      If you’re using moist heat and it’s not going away, you should see a doctor. There’s no way I could tell that for sure without an exam, but you may need antibiotics to cure it.
      Meantime over-the-counter antibiotic ointment or raw honey, might help.

  • Cody

    My finger got infected and it’s been like it for about a week now. I tried squeezing the pus out of it but it only hurt more and it is throbbing and feeling tingly should I seek medical advice or just soak it

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      If you’ve tried soaking it and it didn’t clear it up, you should see a doctor. Squeezing hard almost always makes infections worse.

  • Yar Nunya

    Dr. Hubbard, thank you very much. I had one of these develop on one of my fingers and in my research to determine whether or not to go to an MD for some clindamycin and a needle stab/some squeezing to remove most of the pus. I had tried steps 1-3 at home, but on the morning of Day 4 with no improvement I went to a competent MD and obtained proper treatment. Thank you for simplifying my decision and probably saving me money and a lot of pain or worse.

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Glad to help. You’re welcome.

  • Linda

    Hi I have this kind of infection in my finger see attached photo what do you think I should do. It’s over 2weeks now.

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      If you’ve tried the heat, otc antibiotic oint,, etc. and it’s not going away, you should consider going to the doctor for some antibiotics.

  • Carlos Zapota

    I had an infected nail, I took the hangnail out but like the meaty part like the bottom of it, it’s still tender and gets swollen, I squeeze out the pus and then it’s good until like two or three days past, it’s getting annoying. It interfering my writing in school please doctor, try to help me out

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Sounds like you need to go to the doctor for antibiotics and to make sure there’s no small piece of the nail still in there.

  • Kop

    I have one of these right now on my little finger it showed up 4 days ago and it has grown and spread around the whole top area of my finger, there is no puss leakage yet and there is no open wound but it is starting to go a really dark/raw pink color just like in the picture above. I’ve been soaking my hand in warm salty water for the past 2 days 3 times a day but it dose not seem to be getting better I will need to go see my doctor tomorrow i think…..

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Kop, Sounds like a good plan.

  • SJohnson

    Dear Dr. Hubbard, my 90-year-old father has always had some “benign” (i.e., not painful) purpling in his left hand (his writing hand). In the past three years, he says, the mottling has become more intense and sometimes painful. In the past week, his little finger has become a bit swollen and consistently painful — a slightly darker purple than the rest of his hand, and most tender, I think, at the pad of the tip of the finger. He’s made an appointment with a hand doctor, but it’s not for another three weeks. He refuses to talk to his primary care physician — “he’d just tell me to go to the ER.” He doesn’t want to do this at any price, he says. “Even if it’s the price of your finger?” “Yes.” Please advise. Thank you very much.

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      If there’s an urgent care clinic in the area, that’s an option. Or call the family doctor and see what he says. He may very well want to see him in the office. Tell him your father refuses to go to the ER.

      • SJohnson

        Thanks, Dr. Hubbard. Much appreciated.

  • John

    This is my middle finger at the moment. Is this a case or paronychia? Any special tips on how to fix this? The swelling has gotten worse because I have to use a pen on the finger. It’s been 3 days and started after I cut my nails.

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Just what’s in the post.

  • hope

    Is that really bad

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Hope, there’s no way I could tell that without an actual exam. If it’s not getting better have home treatment, you should see a doctor.

      • hope

        ok well my pinky has a sharp pain right now