Understanding Nail Fungus


Fungal infections often change the texture and color of your nails. See more pictures of skin problems.
© iStockphoto.com/adrian beesley

Fungus is one of those words that just sound bad.  Even if you don't know what it is, you definitely wouldn't want it growing on your body. Yet as many as 14 percent of Americans have nail fungus, and in the 60-and-over population, that number can soar up to 40 percent [source: PDRhealth]. Fortunately, there are telltale signs of nail fungus you can watch for, and if you end up among those who've contracted the condition, there are ways to effectively treat it.

You can get fungal infections on your fingernails and toenails. If you want to be on the lookout for nail fungus, it manifests itself in several common symptoms. Pay attention to any changes in the texture or color of your nails. In some cases, fungi cause streaks of yellow discoloration to appear under the nail. In other cases, the fungi appear as white specks or streaks on the surface of the nail. Depending on the type of fungus, your nail may become thicker and separate from the nail bed, or your nail may become weak and break apart or crumble, yet remain attached to the nail bed [source: WebMD].

Changes in color and texture aren't the only signs to watch out for; some fungal infections can spread from the nail to the surrounding skin on your fingers and toes causing inflammation, redness and irritation. In advanced cases, these infections can become quite painful, and they may be accompanied by an unpleasant odor of decay.

Nail fungus not only looks bad; it can also be nasty enough to interfere with your daily activities [source: PDRhealth]. The good news is, it's something you may be able avoid, but you first have to know what causes it. Keep reading to learn about when and why nail fungus rears its ugly head.

Causes of Nail Fungus

In a perfect world, just knowing what causes fungal infections in nails would be enough to avoid getting them, but unfortunately there are some risk factors you have no control over. For example, men are more likely to contract nail fungus than women are[source: Mayo Clinic]. Age is another factor; in fact, the older you get, the greater your chances are of contracting nail fungus, especially for those aged 60 or older [source: PDRhealth]. A family history of nail fungus also plays a part in the likelihood of you getting it.

Fungi are plant-like parasites, and they exist on your body even when you are not suffering an infection. Although nail infections can be caused by yeast, the most common culprits of fungal nail infections are dermatophytes. In fact, 90 percent of fungus-related toenail infections occur when dermatophytes set up residence on your toes [source: WebMD]. So, what's so appealing about your toenails? They're a food source for the fungi. Keratin, the main protein that makes up your skin, hair and nails, is apparently a tasty treat for dermatophytes [sources: PDRhealth and WebMD].

Fungi tend to prosper in dark, moist areas. Covering your feet with non-breathable socks and keeping them stuffed into tight shoes all day creates the perfect environment for fungi to thrive. But swearing off shoes and socks and going barefoot all the time still doesn't mean you won't get nail fungus; in fact, you can pick up nail fungus from walking around barefoot in certain places [source: Mayo Clinic]. If you have even the tiniest cut on your foot, those sneaky little organisms can move right in.

Whether the odds are simply stacked against you or you've forgotten to wear your flip-flops in the locker room shower one too many times, getting a nail fungus does not mean you're doomed to thick, painful nails for the rest of your life. There are several ways to treat fungal infections. Keep reading to learn about them.

Nail Fungus Treatments

Ultimately, your doctor is the best resource for treating a fungal infection of the nails. Since there are a number of different fungi that may be responsible for an infection, the best treatment for your condition depends on your doctor taking a sample from your nails and identifying the specific culprit. In addition to fungal infections, there a few other conditions -- such as psoriasis and eczema -- that mimic some of the symptoms, so it is always best to get a firm diagnosis before beginning any kind of treatment regimen [source: WebMD].

Once your doctor makes a firm diagnosis, there are three main ways to treat fungal nail infections. One is to take oral anti-fungal medication. However, though oral medications are the most effective treatment, they are known to have problematic side effects such as liver damage. In addition, because oral medications work as your nails grow, this method could take four months or longer to get rid of the infection [source: Mayo Clinic].

An alternative to pills is topical treatments such as anti-fungal creams, which have the best chance of success if the infection is caught at an early stage. However, if the infection is very advanced or causing severe pain, your doctor may opt for the third method -- removing the infected nail and surrounding skin via surgery. In any case, fungal infections are hard to eliminate completely and may recur even after a successful treatment [source: WebMD].

If you'd rather not visit the doctor or prefer treatments that don't involve drugs or surgery, there are some homeopathic remedies you could try. Click through to the next page to learn what they are.

Home Remedies for Nail Fungus

If you're a do-it-yourself kind of person and plan to take the home-remedy route to rooting out your nail fungus, here are some commonly suggested home solutions that people have tried, typically applying them to their infected nails over the course of a few to several months:

  • Listerine
  • Vinegar and water
  • Listerine and vinegar
  • Vicks VapoRub
  • Oil of oregano
  • Tea tree oil

[source: Graedon]

There are two things that all of these treatments have in common. The first is that their advocates describe it taking a few months to see results. This timeframe is compatible with prescribed medications [source: Graedon]. The fact is that fungus is hard to kill and nails are slow to respond to treatment. The second thing they all have in common is that they are anecdotal -- meaning that there is no research proving that they work. So try them at your own risk. Keep in mind that if they don't work, your infection may grow worse and will be harder to cure if and when you do decide to see a doctor [source: Mayo Clinic].

If you really don't want to end up at the doctor, probably the best home remedy is prevention. To keep your nails fungus-free, try to keep your feet dry by wearing open-toed shoes or by using moisture-absorbing socks and changing your socks often. Wearing flip-flops in public showers and not going barefoot in public places are other easy ways to keep fungus as bay [source: Mayo Clinic].

To learn more about nail fungus, browse through the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Sources

  • American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). "Nail Fungus & Nail Health." (Accessed 10/07/09)http://www.aad.org/public/publications/pamphlets/common_nail.html
  • Berman, Kevin. "Fungal Nail Infection." MedlinePlus. (Accessed 10/07/09)http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001330.htm
  • Gibson, Lawrence. "Nail Biting: Does it cause long-term damage?" Mayo Clinic. (Accessed 10/07/09)http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/nail-biting/AN01144
  • Graedon, Joe & Terry. "Listerine for Toenail Fungus." People's Pharmacy. (Accessed 10/07/09)http://www.peoplespharmacy.com/2005/11/16/listerine-for-t/index.php
  • Graedon, Joe & Terry. "Getting Rid of Toenail Fungus." People's Pharmacy. (Accessed 10/07/09)http://www.peoplespharmacy.com/2007/11/22/getting-rid-of/
  • PDRhealth. "Nail Fungus" (Accessed 10/07/09)http://www.pdrhealth.com/disease/disease-mono.aspx?contentFileName=BHG01DE11.xml&contentName=Nail+Fungus&contentId=104&sectionMonograph=ht1
  • Mayo Clinic. "Nail Fungus" (Accessed 10/07/09)http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/nail-fungus/DS00084
  • WebMD. "Fungal Nail Infections." (Accessed 10/07/09)http://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/tc/fungal-nail-infections-topic-overview