The name of this condition is a bit confusing as a “hangnail” really isn’t a problem with your nail at all. It is caused by parts of your skin that are raised up around your nail cuticle but are still connected at the skin base. When this raised skin pulls or gets caught on surrounding areas, it pulls the base of the skin and causes inflammation and pain. There are millions of nerve endings in the fingertips and this is why even the slightest tugging causes a significant amount of pain.
Your first thought may be to “rip” the raised piece of skin off but that’s exactly what you shouldn’t do. Ripping the skin can lead to more skin tearing at the base and make you prone to getting an infection of the cuticle.
The best treatment is to use a nail clipper or nail scissors to clip off the hanging skin directly at the base. Be sure to “sterilize” the clipper or scissors with an alcohol swab prior to clipping the skin. This hanging skin is usually dead and can be discarded. Try not to cut off any extra skin at the base that isn’t already hanging off. After clipping the extra skin, apply a topical antibacterial ointment such as Neosporin every day while the base heals over the next 5-7 days.
Sometimes hangnails can result in an infection as the break in the skin is a direct route for bacteria to get under your skin. If the cuticle becomes very red and swollen, or if there is drainage of any pus or fluid, you should see a hand surgeon or other professional to make sure there isn’t any infection. Infections can spread rapidly in the fingertips, and seeing someone as soon as you suspect one can make a big difference.
The main cause of hangnails is routinely dry skin. The best way to prevent this is to exercise skin care and nail care and use a moisturizer. Use daily hand cream or cuticle oils to keep the area around your fingernails from getting dry. This is especially useful in drier and colder geographic areas. This is also important for those who have a lot of daily contact with water and drying soaps.