What is Nail Fungus?

Foot with Toenail Fungus Close-Up in a Sandal Outside

No one likes the idea of a fungal infection, if only for the name alone. Contracting a nail fungus is a surprisingly common condition which can range from a mild nuisance to an unsightly source of pain and discomfort. Fungus that affects the nails and nail beds is also known as onychomycosis; fungus that affects the skin on the toes and feet is called athlete’s foot.

A fungal infection occurs when a fungus gets into the finger or toe nail itself, or into the softer nail bed below; this can happen as a result of small cuts along the finger or when the small opening between the nail and the nail bed is exposed to the fungus. Like bacteria, fungi are generally present all over the body, but when they begin to overgrow or get into the wrong tissue, it can cause problems.

The infection may begin as a small spot — usually yellow or white — under the nail, but as it develops the nail may thicken, crumble, or become discolored. Itchiness, stinging, and other pain may eventually set in. The infection may spread to more than one nail, but it’s very rare for it to affect all nails.

Fungi thrive in damp, warm areas, so people who spend a lot of time in places such as pools, saunas, and showers, as well as those whose hands or feet are often exposed to these types of conditions.

Nail infections are more common in toenails than in fingernails, for a couple of reasons: first, toes tends to spend more time confined in tight shoes — either with sweaty socks or without — which creates a good environment for bacteria to grow; however, regularly wearing gloves can also have this effect. Another reason is that toes naturally have less circulation, which makes it harder for the immune system to notice an infection.

A mild infection may be nothing more than slightly uncomfortable, and can often be treated at home with over the counter medication such as medicated nail polish or lotion. If the infection worsens or doesn’t respond to treatment, you should consult a doctor. Aside from being unsightly, they can also become itchy or painful and may cause lasting damage to the skin or nails. Treatment for more severe cases may include prescription oral drugs, laser or light therapy, and nail removal. People with diabetes need to be especially careful with and responsive to nail fungi, since they are at a higher risk for contracting one and have a higher chance of serious complications.

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