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.

  • Bill

    This worked perfectly, thank you for saving me a trip to the doctor!!

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      You’re welcome.

  • sella

    hey i have an infected finger and i dont know if its serious but it hurts really bad

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Have someone check it out.

  • Mike_Lowe

    I have been reconditioning a wooden door and got a small splinter in the pad of my middle finger yesterday afternoon. Upon puncture it bled a little.
    Woke up this morning, only about 16-hours later, and the fingertip was a little red and warm, so I intervened with a sterile needle and extracted it – at around 2mm it’s pretty small. I thought it would have worked its own way out which is why I hadn’t done so prior.
    Wondering what to do next really. I’ve been soaking it in hot salt baths, applying Savlon and covering it up. Weighing up the options as to whether something apparently so small is worth seeing a doctor about now, in advance of potential issues, or seeing if my own body will keep any form of infection at bay.

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Mike, in general, either soaking in warm water or using a warm, wet bath cloth for 15 mins every hour or two can help the infection or anything left of the splinter come out. But if the redness and warmth are getting progressively worse, you should see a doctor. It’s a judgment call.

  • laura

    I have an infection on my finger its on the right side of the nail on my right hand I always get an infection here and I have tried everything to get it out this time and nothing is working it all hurts to much. I will try the soaking today but I have had this for like a month and I don’t have insurance so I cant go to a dr.

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Laura, you may need some oral antibiotics so you should check around and see what family doctors and urgent cares would charge you for a visit. You could also ask them if they know of any free clinics or those that charge on a sliding scale related to your income.

  • beautifullyimperfect

    Okay I put warm rags around my finger and the swelling went down except my fingertip and its still hurting bad and the fingertip is still swollen I think its cutting off blood circulation in my fingertip so should I go to the doctor or should I put peroxide on my finger and keep soaking it?

  • beautifullyimperfect

    Can I put peroxide on my finger tip and just set my fingertip in warm water

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      If it’s that bad, you should see a doctor.

  • beautifullyimperfect

    I’ve been biting my nails for 3 years now and I bit the skin beside my nail off and the skin was real deep in my nail I bit my skin off Wednesday and my finger didn’t start hurting instill Friday and my finger is swollen a little bit but it hurts really bad! What should I do?

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      All I can tell you is in the post under paronychia and if you have concerns, have it checked.

  • Estefan Resendez

    On my left thumb is a yellow spot underneath my skin it is a little swollen and hurts when I touch it. What does this mean? At first I thought it was a splinter inside but idont know

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Possible it’s what you think. There’s no way I could tell that for sure without an exam.

  • Starr

    have been prone to these infections since I was 9 (bad nail biter) old native remedy that worked for me every time, shredded onions wrapped in the bandage overnight, in no way is this a medical recommendation just personal experience that may or may not help in a jam.

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Thanks, Starr.

  • Deana

    Hi. My daughter got infected middle finger, same thing two months ago on different finger, went to ER they numbed it lanced it and drained gave antibiotics and was fine in few days. Second time two days ago and we go to ER they use same numbing meds but this time they cut a lot bigger and she was in screaming pain and it looks horrible!! I’m worried about MRSA and also what to really look for if I need to go back. It’s been almost 24 hours and it’s really really swollen and almost black… Normal? She is on antibiotic as well

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Deana, it does take time, sometimes a day or two or three, for antibiotics to start working well. However, if it is getting worse or if more than a tiny area is turning black, you should go back. Hopefully they gave you or her some instructions on what to do, and what to look for.