Also called onychomycosis, fungal nails are infections underneath the surface of the nail, which may also penetrate the nail itself. These infections are often accompanied by a secondary bacterial and/or yeast infection of the nail plate, which may ultimately lead to difficulty and pain when walking or running. Symptoms may include discoloration, brittleness, loosening, thickening, or crumbling of the nail.
Because a fungal nail infection is often pain-free, many people don't realise they have the condition and, therefore, don't seek treatment. Yet, fungal toenail infections are a common foot health problem and, if left untreated, can present serious problems. Those who suffer chronic diseases, such as diabetes, circulatory problems, or immune-deficiency conditions, are especially prone to fungal nails. Other contributory factors may be a history of Athlete's Foot or excessive perspiration.
Microscopic organisms (most commonly, a group of fungi called dermatophytes) are the cause of nail fungal infections. However, some yeasts and moulds can also cause them. Pathogens that cause nail fungus infection usually enter the skin through tiny cuts or small separations between the nail and nail bed – the fungi grow when the nail provides a suitably warm and moist environment, as is often the case inside shoes.
These simple precautions will help prevent fungal infections of the nail:
- Exercise proper hygiene and regularly inspect feet and toes.
- Keep feet clean and dry.
- Whenever possible, wear shower shoes in public facilities.
- Clip nails straight across so that the nail does not extend beyond the tip of the toe.
- Avoid wearing excessively tight socks, which promote moisture.
- Disinfect home pedicure tools and don't apply polish to nails suspected of infection.
Depending on the type of infection you have, over-the-counter liquid antifungal agents may not be effective. In such cases, a topical or oral medication may need to be prescribed, and the diseased nail matter and debris removed, a process called debridement. In severe cases, surgical treatment may be required to remove the infected nail. Permanent removal of a chronically painful nail, not only cures the infection but prevents the return of a deformed nail.