Protect Your Nails

The last thing you need when you're undergoing chemotherapy is a nail infection. Here are some tips for avoiding one:

  • Wear rubber gloves when gardening, cleaning house or washing dishes.
  • Keep your nails trimmed and clean, and don't pick, bite or tear your nails or cuticles.
  • Use moisturizing cuticle and nail cream.
  • Use mild soaps and cleaners, and avoid nail polish removers that contain drying chemicals like acetone.
  • Limit the amount of time your nails are in water, and dry them thoroughly after bathing or showering.
  • Don't get a manicure unless you bring your own sanitized equipment, and avoid artificial nails -- the adhesives can trap bacteria [source: BreastCancer.org].

Chemotherapy and Nail Infections

If you're undergoing chemotherapy, you're likely to experience some of the side effects associated with these powerful drugs. Chemotherapy drugs specifically attack the fast-growing cells in your body, such as those in your hair and your nails, which can make you more prone to nail injuries and infections.

During chemotherapy, you may experience several changes in your nails. They may look bruised, develop blemishes such as lines or indentations, become dry and thin or grow more slowly. Your nails are likely to break more easily, your cuticles may fray, and sometimes a nail may fall off. These side effects are temporary, but they can lead to a more serious problem: infection [source: Healthline].

Chemotherapy suppresses your immune system, which is the set of processes in your body designed to fight infection -- with a weaker immune system, your nails and other tissues lose strength. You'll be more likely to develop an infection through a skin opening where your cuticle has frayed or in the nail itself, and you'll be less able to combat it. If you suspect that you have a nail infection, see your doctor immediately.

A variety of nail infections can occur among chemotherapy patients and other people:

  • A fungal infection, called onychomycosis, usually starts on your big toe as a discolored spot and spreads to the cuticle, causing the end of your nail to rise. Occasionally, infection can also begin at the cuticle and raise your nail from there. Once the fungus sets sin, it causes your nails to thicken and flake. The most common fungus to cause these symptoms is Trichophyton rubrum.
  • Yeast, a specific type of fungus, can also get under your nails when your immune system is compromised. A yeast infection causes your nails to thicken and turn yellow, brown or white. People who develop yeast infections in their fingernails may spread the infection to their mouths.
  • Paronychia, a bacterial or fungal infection of the nails, causes inflammation and redness at the base of your nails and in the cuticles. Pseudomonas, commonly referred to as "green spots" or "green nails," results when bacteria get under the nail plate or between the natural nail and an artificial nail. Bacterial infections can be short- or long-term and are more likely to discharge pus. Keeping the skin around your fingernails and toenails clean and dry reduces the likelihood of contracting paronychia [sources: Harvey, Skinsight].

On the next page you'll learn what physicians can do to treat nail infections.