It doesn’t come as a surprise that fungal growth is common infection for toenails and fingernails – after all, we already host fungi and bacteria inside our bodies. While some fungi are healthy for our bodies, an overgrowth can lead to infection. We come into more contact with fungi like yeast and mold in our environment. It thrives in warm, moist areas, like inside shoes or around public swimming pools.
If you have cracks or broken skin on or around your toenails and fingernails, fungus can enter, grow, and cause an infection. Here’s what you need to know about identifying and treating a fungal nail infection (also called onychomycosis or tinea unguium).
Risk Factors and Causes
While most fungal nail infections are preventable by practicing proper hygiene, there are several conditions that can increase your chances of developing an infection.
Risk factors and causes include:
- Age – as you grow older, nails become thicker and grow more slowly
- Certain medical conditions – diabetes, blood circulation problems, psoriasis, or immune system disorders
- Injury – injury or open area to the nail, nail bed, or skin surrounding the nail
- Existing fungal infection – athlete’s foot, ringworm, or jock itch
- Public exposure – walking barefoot in public locker rooms or swimming pools
- Shoe wear – wearing closed-toe shoes, especially the same pair every day
- Wet fingers and toes – having a job or hobby that keeps your fingers and toes wet for long periods, or keeps them trapped inside shoes or gloves
- Family history – people in your family get frequent nail infections
- Climate – living in a hot, humid climate (like Florida)
Another risk factor is coming into contact with someone else who has a fungal nail infection. Nail fungus is contagious, and it can be spread through person-to-person contact or through sharing personal items like towels and nail clippers. If you walk barefoot over a swimming pool deck after someone with a nail infection has walked over it, you too can develop an infection.
Onychomycosis can also be spread through tools in a nail salon. If you wear artificial nails or receive regular manicures, bring your own tools to the salon or make sure the salon tools are sanitized after each use.
Signs and Symptoms
Most fungal infections are painless, unless you do not get the infection treated and the fungus spreads. Nail infections are more common on the toes, because toes spend more time inside warm, closed shoes. An infection can affect part of a nail, one nail, or multiple nails. You may notice any of the following symptoms:
- Thick, brittle nails
- Discoloration – brown, yellow, or white
- Discolored spots that spread across nails
- Splitting or crumbling nails
- Loose nails coming detached from the nail bed
- Flaking areas or pitting on nails
- Foul odor
Diagnosis and Treatment Options
Your dermatologist will examine your nails, and he or she may be able to make a diagnosis from appearance alone. Your doctor may also take a nail sample to inspect under a microscope or culture in a lab. This testing can help your doctor determine the type of fungal growth. Your dermatologist may also debride or remove the infected nail(s) to get rid of fungus and promote new nail growth.
Fungal infections are difficult to treat, and you may experience recurrent infections. Don’t try to treat the infection without seeing a doctor – most topical antifungals aren’t effective at clearing up the problem entirely.
The most effective treatment for a fungal nail infection is oral pills prescribed by your doctor.
How to Prevent Fungal Nail Infections
To prevent fungus from growing and spreading, keep your fingernails and toenails clean and trimmed. Make sure you’re scrubbing soap and water under the nails when you wash your hands and bathe. After bathing or showering, dry hands and feet thoroughly – including between the toes.
Wear flip-flops in public locker rooms and swimming pools. Don’t share personal items like towels or nail clippers with someone else. Wear a clean pair of socks every day, and don’t wear wet shoes. As much as possible, avoid contact with someone who has a nail fungal infection.
If you are getting a manicure or pedicure at a salon, choose a safe, licensed location. Make sure the salon sanitizes their tools and equipment after each use. If you still don’t feel comfortable, bring your own tools for the technician to use.
Most importantly, if you develop signs or symptoms of a nail fungal infection, contact your dermatologist as soon as possible. Early diagnosis and treatment is the key to clearing your infection quickly. At Florida Dermatology and Skin Cancer Centers, our medical professionals are experts in the field of hair, skin, and nail conditions. Contact one of our offices today to schedule a consultation.