Fungal nails refers to any number of fungal nail infections that can occur on the foot. Many people don’t realize they have a fungal nail problem and, therefore, don’t seek treatment. Yet, fungal toenail infections are a common foot health problem and can persist for years without ever causing pain. The disease, characterized by a change in a toenail’s color, is often considered nothing more than a mere blemish. Left untreated, however, it can present serious problems.
Also referred to as onychomycosis, fungal nails are infections underneath the surface of the nail, which may also penetrate the nail. Fungal nail infections are often accompanied by a secondary bacterial and/or yeast infection in or about the nail plate, which ultimately can lead to difficulty and pain when walking or running. Symptoms may include discoloration, brittleness, loosening, thickening, or crumbling of the nail.
A group of fungi, called dermophytes, easily attack the nail and thrive on keratin, the nail’s protein substance. In some cases, when these tiny organisms take hold, the nail may become thicker, yellowish-brown, or darker in color, and foul smelling. Debris may collect beneath the nail plate, white marks may frequently appear on the nail plate, and the infection is capable of spreading to other toenails, the skin, or even the fingernails.
Nail bed injury may make the nail more susceptible to all types of infection, including fungal infection. Those who suffer chronic diseases, such as diabetes, circulatory problems, or immune-deficiency conditions, are especially prone to fungal nails. Other contributory factors may be a history of Athlete’s Foot or excessive perspiration.
Since fungal nails are usually more resistant and more difficult to treat than Athlete’s Foot, topical or oral antifungal medications may be prescribed. Note: Please consult a physician before taking any medications. Permanent nail removal is another possible form of treatment for tenacious fungal nails.
Preventing Fungal Nail Infections
After a fungal nail infection has cleared up, take steps to prevent the infection from recurring. Keeping fungi at bay will help prevent a fungal infection of the skin from reinfecting the nail. Before bed, thoroughly wash and dry your feet, and apply a nonprescription antifungal cream to the entire foot from the ankle down. Use the cream every night, then gradually apply it less often. Keep your feet dry. Dry feet are less likely to become infected. Apply powder to your dry feet after you take a shower or bath.
Other suggestions for preventing fungal nails include:
- Don’t share nail clippers or nail files with others.
- Don’t share shoes or socks with others.
- Try not to injure your nail, such as by cutting it too short (trauma to the nail may lead to infections).
- Clip nails straight across so that the nail does not extend beyond the tip of the toe.
- Use a quality foot powder (talcum, not cornstarch) in conjunction with shoes that fit well and are made of materials that breathe.
- Avoid wearing excessively tight hosiery, which promotes moisture. Wear dry cotton socks and change them two or three times a day if necessary. Those with more active lifestyles may find that socks made of synthetic fibers tend to “wick” away moisture faster than cotton or wool socks.
- Disinfect home pedicure tools and don’t apply polish to nails suspected of infection.
- Wear dry shoes that allow air to circulate around your feet (tight, enclosed, moist shoes contribute to fungal toenail infections).
- Wear shower sandals or shower shoes when you are at a public pool or shower.
- Exercise proper hygiene and regularly inspect your feet and toes.
- Follow basic foot care guidelines and, more than likely, you can head off most common foot fungus problems.
Depending on the type of infection you have, over-the-counter liquid antifungal agents may not prevent a fungal infection from recurring. A topical or oral medication may need to be prescribed, and the diseased nail matter and debris removed, a process called debridement. Note: Please consult your physician before taking any medications.
In severe cases, surgical treatment may be required to remove the infected nail. Permanent removal of a chronically painful nail, which has not responded to any other treatment, permits the fungal infection to be cured and prevents the return of a deformed nail.