Nail fungus is a fungal infection in one or more of your nails. An infection with nail fungus may begin as a white or yellow spot under the tip of your fingernail or toenail. As the nail fungus spreads deeper into your nail, it may cause your nail to discolor, thicken and develop crumbling edges — an unsightly and potentially painful problem.
An infection with nail fungus may be difficult to treat, and it may recur. There are medications are available to help clear up nail fungus.
Symptoms of Nail Fungus
There are different classifications of nail fungus — depending on type of fungus and manifestation — which may have somewhat different signs and symptoms. In general, however, you may have a nail fungal infection — also called onychomycosis (on-i-ko-mi-KO-sis) — if one or more of your nails are:
- Brittle, crumbly or ragged
- Distorted in shape
- Dull, with no luster or shine
- A dark color, caused by debris building up under your nail
- Infected nails also may separate from the nail bed, a condition called onycholysis. You may feel pain in your toes or fingertips and detect a slightly foul odor.
When to see a doctor
Once a nail fungal infection begins, it can persist indefinitely if not treated. See your doctor at the first sign of nail fungus, which is often a tiny white or yellow spot under the tip of your nail.
Causes of Nail Fungus
Nail fungal infections are typically caused by a fungus that belongs to a group of fungi called dermatophytes. But yeasts and molds also can be responsible for nail fungal infections.
What are fungi?
Fungi are microscopic organisms that don't need sunlight to survive. Some fungi have beneficial uses, while others cause illness and infection.
All of these microscopic organisms:
- Live in warm, moist environments, including swimming pools and showers
- Can invade your skin through tiny visible or invisible cuts or through a small separation between your nail and nail bed
- Cause problems only if your nails are continually exposed to warmth and moisture — conditions perfect for the growth and spread of fungi
- Toenails vs. fingernails
- Nail fungus occurs more in toenails than in fingernails.
- Toenails often are confined in a dark, warm, moist environment inside your shoes — where fungi can thrive. Diminished blood circulation to the toes as compared with the fingers makes it harder for your body's immune system to detect and eliminate the infection.
Risk factors of Nail Fungus
Aging is the most common risk factor for nail fungus for several reasons, including:
- Diminished blood circulation
- More years of exposure to fungi
- Nails may grow more slowly and thicken with age, making them more susceptible to infection
- Nail fungus tends to affect men more often than it does women, particularly those with a family history of this infection.
Other factors that can increase your risk of developing nail fungus include:
- Perspiring heavily
- Working in a humid or moist environment
- Having the skin condition psoriasis
- Wearing socks and shoes that hinder ventilation and don't absorb perspiration
- Walking barefoot in damp public places, such as swimming pools, gyms and shower rooms
- Having athlete's foot (tinea pedis)
- Having a minor skin or nail injury, a damaged nail, or another infection
- Having diabetes, circulation problems or a weakened immune system
- You may have Candida - Candidiasis is the medical term used to describe a yeast overgrowth that is usually found in the intestinal tract and other tissues of the body. If you have Candida you can change your diet and reverse this.
Complications of Nail Fungus
Nail fungus can be painful and may cause permanent damage to your nails. It also may lead to other serious infections that can spread beyond your feet if you have a suppressed immune system due to medication, diabetes or other conditions.
Fungal infections of the nail pose the most serious health risk for people with diabetes and for those with weakened immune systems, such as people with leukemia or AIDS or organ transplant recipients.
If you have diabetes, your blood circulation and the nerve supply to your feet can become impaired. You're also at greater risk for Cellulitis, a potentially serious bacterial skin infection. Therefore, any relatively minor injury to your feet — including a nail fungal infection — can lead to a more serious complication, requiring timely medical care. See your doctor immediately if you suspect nail fungus.
Prevention of Nail Fungus
To help prevent nail fungus and reduce recurrent infections, practice good hand and foot hygiene.
- Keep your nails short, dry and clean. Trim nails straight across and file down thickened areas. Thoroughly dry your hands and feet, including between your toes, after bathing.
- Wear appropriate socks. Synthetic socks that wick away moisture may keep your feet dryer than do cotton or wool socks (you can also wear synthetic socks underneath other socks). Change them often, especially if your feet sweat excessively. Take your shoes off occasionally during the day and after exercise. Alternate closed-toe shoes with open-toe shoes.
- Use an antifungal spray or powder. Spray or sprinkle your feet and the insides of your shoes.
- Wear rubber gloves. This protects your hands from overexposure to water. Between uses, turn the rubber gloves inside out to dry.
- Don't trim or pick at the skin around your nails. This may give germs access to your skin and nails.
- Don't go barefoot in public places. Wear shoes around public pools, showers and locker rooms.
- Choose a reputable manicure and pedicure salon. Make sure the salon sterilizes its instruments. Better yet, bring your own.
- Give up nail polish and artificial nails. Although it may be tempting to hide nail fungal infections under a coat of pretty pink polish, this can trap unwanted moisture and worsen the infection.
- Wash your hands after touching an infected nail. Nail fungus can spread from nail to nail.
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