Infected Finger: When It's Dangerous

Important Caution. Please Read This!

Use the information on this site AT YOUR OWN RISK, and read the disclaimer.








Subscribe for Free!

Never miss a post or update.

BONUS: Right now, you'll also receive "The Survival Doctor's Ultimate Emergency Medical Supplies" report—FREE!

We respect your email privacy.

 Subscribe in a reader

Find The Survival Doctor on FacebookFollow The Survival Doctor on TwitterFollow Me on PinterestFollow me on GoodreadsSubscribe to me on YouTube

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.

(Subscribe to updates below.)

  • Subscribe for Free!
    Never miss a post or update.

    BONUS: You'll also receive "The Survival Doctor's Ultimate Emergency Medical Supplies" report—FREE!

    We respect your email privacy.


Photo by Chris Craig.

  • 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

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ 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.

        • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ 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 :(

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ 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?

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ 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.

  • Pingback: Interview - TheSurvivalDoctor - survivalprepper-joe.com

  • gracy

    Hi I had my felon on the right thumb lanced after i was administered local my thumb got swollen from knuckel upwards its over a month now & its still the same .can bend my thumb at the knuckel only 20%.the knuckel hurts. What do u think

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      If you haven’t had it rechecked, you should.

  • Jessica

    Hi Doctor

    My daughter just outta no where she just got her middle finger like this but im very worried everytime I squeeze her finger to take the puss out she crys and screams of pain how can I help her with out her going through pain please help

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Jessica, first, when it comes to infection, don’t squeeze. You may spread the infection. I can only advise generally, and that would be either try the paronychia treatment for a day or two or take her to her doctor. Much depends on the extent of pain (without squeezing) and if the infection is spreading.

  • 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?

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ 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

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ 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

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ 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.

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Glad to help. You’re welcome.