Paronychia

Author: Hon A/Prof Amanda Oakley, Dermatologist, Hamilton, New Zealand, 1997. Updated by Dr Jannet Gomez, August 2017

What is paronychia?

Paronychia is inflammation of the skin around a finger or toenail. It can be acute (> 6 weeks) or chronic (persisting > 6 weeks).

Paronychia is also called whitlow. It may be associated with felon (infection of the pulp of the fingertip).

Who gets paronychia?

Acute paronychia can affect anyone. However, it is more likely to follow a break in the skin, especially between the proximal nail fold/cuticle and the nail plate. For example:

Chronic paronychia mainly occurs in people with hand dermatitis, or who have constantly cold and wet hands, such as:

Acute and chronic skin infections tend to be more frequent and aggressive in patients with diabetes or chronic debility, or that are immune suppressed by drugs or disease.

What causes paronychia?

Acute paronychia is usually due to bacterial infection with Staphylococcus aureus (which may be multiresistant), Streptococcus pyogenes, pseudomonas, or other bacterial pathogens. It can also be due to the cold sore virus, Herpes simplex, and the yeast, Candida albicans.

The cause or causes of chronic paronychia are not fully understood. In many cases, it is due to dermatitis of the nail fold. Often several different micro-organisms can be cultured, particularly Candida albicans and the Gram negative bacilli, pseudomonas.

What are the clinical features of paronychia?

Acute paronychia

Acute paronychia develops rapidly over a few hours, and usually affects a single nail fold. Symptoms are pain, redness and swelling. 

If herpes simplex is the cause, multiple tender vesicles may be observed. Sometimes yellow pus appears under the cuticle and can evolve to abscess. The nail plate may lift up (onycholysis). Acute paronychia due to Streptococcus pyogenes may be accompanied by fever, lymphangiitis and tender lymphadenopathy.

Acute candida more commonly infects the proximal nail fold.

Chronic paronychia

Chronic paronychia is a gradual process. It may start in one nail fold, particularly the proximal nail fold, but often spreads laterally and to several other fingers. Each affected nail fold is swollen and lifted off the nail plate. This allows entry of organisms and irritants.The affected skin may be red and tender from time to time, and sometimes a little pus (white, yellow or green) can be expressed from under the cuticle.

The nail plate thickens and is distorted, often with transverse ridges.

See more images of paronychia ...

What are the complications of paronychia?

Acute paronychia can spread to cause a serious hand infection (cellulitis) and may involve underlying tendons (infectious tendonitis).

The main complication of chronic paronychia is nail dystrophy. It is often associated with distorted, ridged nail plates. They may become yellow or green/black and brittle. After recovery, it takes up to a year for the nails to grow back to normal.

How is paronychia diagnosed?

Paronychia is a clinical diagnosis, often supported by laboratory evidence of infection.

What is the treatment for paronychia?

Acute paronychia

Chronic paronychia

Attend to predisposing factors.

Treatment should focus on the dermatitis and any microbes grown on culture  [1].

Other management

What is the outlook for paronychia?

Acute paronychia usually clears completely in a few days, and rarely recurs in healthy individuals.

Chronic paronychia may persist for months or longer, and can recur in predisposed individuals.

Related information

Email Newsletter

Would you like to receive our dermatology updates by email?

SIGN UP

Submit your images

We're seeking high-quality photos of skin diseases.  

SUBMIT A PHOTO

Machine diagnosis

Watch DermNet's proposal to create a 'Skin Disease Image Recognition Tool' - winner of the 2017 'Clinicians' Challenge Active Award' by the NZ Ministry of Health and HiNZ.

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required
DermNet NZ Newsletter