Fungal Toenails

Peter Wishnie, D.P.M.
Owner of Family Foot & Ankle Specialists in Piscataway & Hillsborough, NJ
Fungal toenails are an unsightly infection of the nails, causing thickened, brittle, yellow, discolored and sometimes painful nails. It is very difficult to cure. It is caused by one of several microscopic organisms, similar to those that cause Athlete's Foot (dermatophytosis) These are plant like organisms that thrive in a dark, warm, moist environment, such as within shoes and stockings. They grow in the nail bed, beneath your nails, and live off Keratin, the protein in the nail. The condition usually begins toward the far end of the nail and may cause white or yellow-white areas that appear to be rotten or dead. If the infection continues to the base of the nail, it can invade the nail root (matrix) and cause the nail to grow thickened and deformed. Many people complain of a foul odor associated with this condition. It can also spread to other nails. The fungus often spreads to the adjacent skin surrounding the nail.
 
Symptoms of Toenail Fungus
It may not be painful in the beginning, and may only look slightly different than the normal nails. Later, the nail may begin to show small patches of white or yellowish-tan color and may become brittle and split. As it progresses, the nail becomes thicker and deformed and may begin to grow at an angle and become an Ingrown Nail. Pain develops, due to the ingrown or thickened nail deformity, and becomes aggravated by pressure applied by shoes. Inflammation can develop due to this pressure and a secondary bacterial infection may occur, leading to more pain. Even without inflammation, shoe pressure on the fungal nails can cause pain, making it difficult to walk or stand
for periods of time. This can also influence one's involvement in day to day activities.

Causes of Toenail Fungus
Many types of fungus are common in our environment. Among them are the dermatophytes, a group of opportunistic parasitic plant organisms, similar to molds or mildew, that, lacking chlorophyll, do not require sunlight for growth. Sweaty tennis shoes and moist socks create the perfect conditions for them. The funguses thrive in a warm, moist, dark environment and they eat the protein keratin that our skin produces. Although funguses may be present in the skin around the nails, one may not develop a nail infection without history of injury, such as bruised nails from short shoes, inflammation from an ingrown nail, or from cutting the nails incorrectly or too short. In other words, the organisms do not invade intact, healthy, normal skin or nails. Other contributing factors would be excessive perspiration, and Dermatophytosis (Athlete's Foot), which is caused by similar fungi. Some individuals appear to be more susceptible to infection. These would include those with medical conditions such as diabetes and poor circulation and HIV. For that reason, even if treatment is successful in eliminating the condition, the susceptible person may become re-infected in the future.


Treatment
First of all, the doctor will do a physical examination to determine if there is a fungus present and not some other kind of medical condition. After determining the type of fungus, treatment may range from topical solutions to oral, systemic medications to more effective laser treatment. 

The treatment option you choose with your doctor will depend on your goals. How quickly you want to be rid of the fungus, other health concerns will all be factors to determine the best treatment.

Preventing Toenail Fungus
You may be asked to treat the insides of your shoes, which have become contaminated by the fungus. This is to make sure that the new healthy nail doesn't become contaminated by any fungus hiding in the shoe. To prevent the fungus infection from coming back, the best offense is a good defense. We must control moisture and create a drier environment for your feet. Use powder in shoes, to absorb perspiration. Avoid synthetic or nylon socks that trap, rather than absorb perspiration. Cotton socks absorb moisture and wick it away from the skin and nails. Keeping your feet dry and protected from injury is essential to avoid any fungus infections. If you have been cutting your nails too deeply, or treating an ingrown nail on your own, this may have allowed the fungus to grow under the nail. If shoes have become contaminated while you had the condition, they may be sanitized by spraying them with a topical antifungal spray, to prevent a recurrence of the Fungal Nail condition.