Nail fungus is made up of tiny organisms that can infect fingernails and toenails. It is very common. More than 2 million people in Canada have it. A nail fungus infection is also called onychomycosis (ON-i-ko-my-KO-sis).
The nail fungus moves in under the nail. The nail provides a safe place for the fungus and protects it while it grows. That’s why it’ s so hard to reach and stop nail fungus.
Most often, nail fungus appears in the toenails. This is because socks and shoes keep the toenails dark, warm, and moist. This is a perfect place for the fungus to grow.
The organisms that make up nail fungus can sometimes spread from one person to another because these organisms can live where the air is often moist and people’ s feet are bare. This can happen in places like shower stalls, bathrooms, or locker rooms or it can be passed along on a nail file or emery board. Nail fungus may also spread from one of your nails to other nails.
Most often, the tiny fungus gets under the nail and takes hold. Anything that damages a nail can make it easier for the fungus to move in, such as:
- An injury (like banging a fingernail with a hammer)
- Tight shoes that pinch the toes
Many people are at risk for getting nail fungus:
- People who share locker rooms, bathrooms, showers, and swimming pools
- Anyone whose feet sweat a lot at work or at play
- People who are hard on their feet, such as athletes, runners, and dancers
- People who have had athlete’ s foot in the past (a fungal skin infection that makes the skin between the toes get itchy and sore and causes it to crack or peel)
- People who get manicures or pedicures in salons that don’ t keep nail clippers, emery boards, and other tools clean
- People over 65 years of age
- People with medical problems, such as poor circulation (blood flow), diabetes, or immune system disease (such as AIDS or HIV infection)
You may see, smell, or feel a nail fungus infection once it takes hold.
- The color of the nail may change to yellow-green or brown.
- The nail may get flaky
- Debris may collect under the nail and smell bad, especially in the toes
- A toenail may thicken and make shoes hurt or feel tight
- An infected toenail can make it painful to stand or walk
These symptoms may not get better. In fact, if nail fungal infections are not treated, they may get worse.
First, your health care provider will look closely at your nails. If your health care provider thinks you have nail fungus, he or she may perform a test. Your health care provider will take a small piece of your nail so that it can be examined. It may be examined in the office or sent out to a lab. This is the only way to know if you really have nail fungus.
Your health care provider can prescribe medicine for your fungal infection that you take by mouth. For toenail fungal infections, treatment usually lasts 12 weeks. This medicine travels through the blood to reach the fungus under the nail. You could say it works from the inside out.
To find out if one of these medicines is right for you, talk with your health care provider. Some people use products not approved by Health Canada for nail fungal infections, such as over-the-counter creams, lotions, and polishes from a drugstore or pharmacy. Others use home remedies, such as vinegar or other solutions. But these products may not work very well because they don’ t reach the fungus where it lives under the nail.
Some people choose to treat nail fungus. Some people don’t, but nail fungus often won’ t go away all by itself. It can keep getting worse. It may spread from one nail to another, or to someone else. Your healthcare provider will help you decide how to deal with your nail fungal infection.
Here are some reasons people choose to treat nail fungus:
- They feel embarrassed by the way the fungus has made their nails look.
- Their nails, especially toenails, hurt.
- It can lead to other medical problems for people with circulation problems in their feet and/or people with diabetes.
Take these steps while you are being treated and afterwards to take care of your nails. You might want to share these tips with people close to you.
- Keep your feet as clean and dry as possible. Talcum foot powder can help.
- Wear shoes that “breathe,” such as canvas or leather shoes.
- Wear shower shoes when you’ re in public swimming pools, public showers, or locker rooms.
- Clip your toenails straight across so they do not extend over the edges of the toes.
- Wear comfortable shoes that fit properly and don’ t pinch your toes.
- If you get manicures or pedicures, make sure your salon follows the rules for cleanliness. States require that nail salons be licensed and follow strict health rules. Salons must sterilize instruments and footbaths. Licenses must be posted so customers know the salon has been inspected.