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An Introduction to Nail Fungus:
What is Nail Fungus?
Nail fungus, also referred to as Onychomycosis, is a fungal infection that gets under the fingernails or toenails. It causes the nail to thicken and become yellow. When nails are infected, they tend to look dark and often crumpled. Nail fungus multiplies in warm, dark, damp places, like the inside of shoes or socks. It starts out looking like a white or yellow spot on the toenail or fingernail. Gradually it spreads as the nail fungus works its way underneath the nail down to the nail bed, where it can be much harder to eradicate. Your nail will become yellow looking and more ridged, and it may start to crumble or flake off around the edges. This can be very unsightly and may cause people to refrain from wearing sandals or going barefoot. The sad thing is that going barefoot or with sandals is one of the remedies to clear up nail fungus.
The Causes of Nail Fungus
The older we get, the more nail fungus becomes common. Partially this is due to poor blood circulation. Another factor is just being more exposed to environments that have fungal growths as we get older. Our nails get thicker and grow more slowly as we age, which adds to the potential for contracting nail fungus. If your immune system is compromised, this can increase the risk of nail fungus as well as making it harder to fight off the infection. Accidentally damaging your nail, by slamming it in a door or hitting it with something, can also make it easier for the nail fungus to invade as frequently this causes the nail to fall off, giving the fungus access to the nail bed.
Most Common Locations of Nail Fungus
Most people have nail fungus on their toenails because our feet spend more time in the dark than our hands. The shoe is also an ideal breeding environment for nail fungus, as it is usually damp and warm as well as dark. Bare feet are frequently exposed to nail fungus when we walk around public showers, locker rooms or swimming pools.
People who spend a great deal of time with their hands in water or damp gloves become more prone to fingernail fungus infections. Nail salons that don’t disinfect their tools can become the source of an epidemic of nail fungus. It is easy for nail fungus to be spread from one client to the next if the tools are not cleaned in between customers by sterilizing them. People who get pedicures face the same risks if the basins where people soak their feet are not properly cleaned as well.
Nail Fungus Treatment
It is hard to treat nail fungus effectively as the nail grows so slowly and the
infection can last as long as it takes a nail to grow out. If you can catch the infection early on, it is much easier to treat and will heal faster. Many doctors prescribe strong oral anti-fungal medications, such as terbinafine (commercial name, Lamasil) and itroconazole (commercial name, Sporanox). These drugs, while effective, can be toxic to the liver and have to be taken for a long time to be effective, so come with the potential side effects of liver damage, and skin rashes. People who have heart or liver conditions should not take these medications, nor should people taking certain other medications. Even after taking oral anti-fungals, the entire process of healing from nail fungus can be long and frustrating. It takes up to 9 months for a healthy nail to fully replace the damaged one, and the risk of re-infection is always there.
Do I Have to Take a Prescription Medication?
If your case of nail fungus is mild, or caught early on, your doctor may prescribe an anti-fungal nail lacquer, similar to applying nail polish, known as ciclopirox (commercial name, Penlac). Some people find that this clears the infection right up, while others find that it irritates the skin around the nail and never penetrates deep enough to encounter and kill the nail fungus. Your doctor may grind down or file off some of the infected toenail to allow the medication to absorb properly. Some doctors choose to have their patients use both an oral and a topical medication to clear up the infection.
Surgery to Treat Nail Fungus
There is always the possibility that surgery can be used to remove the infected nail, especially if the infection is deep or is causing the patient a great deal of pin. Some doctors think that removing the nail, and accompanying nail fungus, and allowing the growth of an entirely new, healthy nail is a good remedy. This can be a very long and painful process, and is really only recommended for extreme infections.
Nail Fungus Prevention
The best idea is to avoid getting nail fungus to begin with. Here are some suggestions to follow:
- As nail fungus breeds in dark, damp, places, keeping your hands and feet dry as much as possible is a good idea. Expose your hands and feet to light and clean fresh air as often as you can.
- Keep a spare pair of socks available so that if you get your current ones wet, you can change them out for a dry pair. Change your socks and shoes after exercising or if your feet sweat a great deal.
- Never wear overly tight shoes
- Wear sandals or flip flops when spending time in public places that are wet, such as public pools, locker rooms or public showers.
- Keep your nails neatly trimmed
- Consider bringing your own tools when you go for a manicure or pedicure. This may seem awkward, but it does ensure that the tools being used on your body are sterilized.
- Alternately, confirm that your salon actually sterilizes its instruments and practices good hygiene.
- Ask your nail technician to please clean the basin with bleach before putting your hands or feet into it.
Risk Factors for Nail Fungus
- People who are older
- People who perspire a great deal, especially if your hands or feet perspire
- People who already suffer from other skin conditions, such as psoriasis or eczema
- People who wear shoes that are too tight
- People who do not allow their feet to breathe
- People who walk around barefoot in public showers, locker rooms and at swimming pools
- People who have athlete’s foot
- People who have an injured nail
- People with poor circulation
- People with a compromised immune system
- People with diabetes
When to Seek Treatment for Nail Fungus
At the earliest noticed sign of discoloration, it is best to seek professional help. Your doctor can determine what kind of infection it is by scraping a bit of the infected nail and examining it under a microscope as well as sending it out to be cultured. This will help determine the best treatment for it. If your nail is already yellowed, or even turning brown or black, it is definitely time to talk to your doctor as they can still help fight the infection. Good identifying factors for seeking treatment are:
- Brittle or thick nails
- It appears as if the nail might pull away from the nail bed
- The nail has turned yellow, brown, grey or black
- There appear to be fragments under the nail
- The nail smells bad
- The nail and surrounding area hurt