The great majority will at some time in their lives develop a fungal nail infection, the medical name for which is onychomycosis. Fungal nail infections are normally not serious, but can be difficult to get rid of and rather unpleasant to experience. The development of the infection takes place slowly and results in the nail becoming discoloured, distorted and thickened. Fungal nail infections are more likely to be a problem on toenails than on fingernails.
There may be no obvious symptoms of a fungal nail infection to begin with, but as the infection progresses some symptoms may become noticeable, such as:
- The nail becoming discoloured, possibly turning black, green, yellow or even white
- The nail thickening and becoming discoloured, possibly developing an abnormal texture or shape and becoming more difficult to trim
- The nail becoming crumbling or brittle, with some pieces breaking off and possibly completely detaching
- Discomfort or pain around the nail, particularly if the affected finger or toe is in use or has pressure placed on it
Skin near to the infected nail may also be affected, and can become swollen and red or cracked and itchy.
In most cases, fungal nail infections are the result of the nails becoming infected with the same fungi that is responsible for the condition known as athlete’s foot. Such fungi can often live on the skin without causing any harm, but in some instances they can multiply and result in infections. Fungi like places that are dark, moist and warm, making the feet an ideal environment for them. Experiencing a fungal nail infection is more likely if:
- You fail to keep your feet dry and clean
- You walk barefoot in places such as gyms, communal showers and locker rooms, areas where fungal infections can be easily spread
- Your immune system is weakened
- You wear shoes that make your feet sweaty and hot
- You have damaged nails
- You have health issues such as psoriasis, peripheral arterial disease or diabetes
Fungal nail infections are contagious, so it is important to take steps to avoid spreading the infection to other people.
The risk of experiencing a fungal nail infections can be greatly reduced by following a few simple precautions, such as:
- Keeping your feet and hands dry and clean
- Keeping your nails short and not sharing scissors or nail clippers with others
- Wearing special shower shoes to protect your feet in public showers, locker rooms and pools
- Immediately treating athlete’s foot to prevent a spread of the infection to your nails
- Wearing clean cotton socks and shoes that are manufactured from natural materials, and are fitted correctly to your feet to enable them to breathe
- Washing your towels on a regular basis and not sharing them, or socks, with others
- Replacing any old footwear that could possibly be infected with fungi
Fungal nail infections can also sometimes be passed on by nail salon equipment. If you use a salon on a regular basis, make sure that the equipment is correctly sterilised between uses on different clients.
There is not always a need to seek treatment in the event of a fungal nail infection; many people do not see the need, and further problems are unlikely to result from the condition. However, it is still important to practice good hygiene with regard to your feet in order to prevent the infection worsening, or being spread to other people. If the affected nail is causing problems such as discomfort or pain, or its appearance is causing you distress, then it is a good idea to speak to a doctor or pharmacist. Experts may recommend treatments such as:
- Antifungal nail paints, special paints that can be directly applied to the nail over a period of several months
- Antifungal tablets that can be taken once or twice daily for several months
- Nail softening kits, which use paste to soften infected areas on the nail, and a scraping device to remove them
In severe cases a doctor may recommend a procedure to completely remove the nail. Laser treatment is another option, but this can be extremely expensive and is not available on the NHS.