Many conditions can cause thickened or discolored nails, but most often these symptoms are due to fungal infections in either fingernails or toenails. Fungal infections can develop in the nail bed, nail matrix (the area from which the nail begins to grow), or even the nail plate.
A fungal nail infection, or onychomycosis, is an infection underneath the surface of the nail caused by tiny microscopic organisms known as fungi. It is difficult to avoid coming in contact with fungus, especially if you are often walking around barefoot in damp areas. Areas such as pool decks, locker rooms, and other public areas that are often warm and wet are areas where fungus thrives. People can also pick up fungus when they have contact with someone who is already infected, or even by using an infected nail clipper.
Injury to the nail bed can also increase the risk of fungal infections. Chronic diseases such as diabetes, poor circulation, or immune deficiencies can also make a person more prone to developing fungal infections.
Another common cause of fungal infections is a failure to keep your feet or fingers clean and dry. If you wear sweaty socks or the same pair of shoes often without letting them dry, you may be at a higher risk of developing a fungal infection.
Initially, a fungal infection may go unnoticed for months or even years without causing pain. However, as the infection spreads and progresses the toe or finger may become swollen and painful.
Some other symptoms of a fungal infection include:
- Partial or full discoloration of the nail (white, brown, yellow, or green). At first, it may develop at the tip but if left untreated the discoloration will begin to spread.
- Debris buildup underneath the nail
- The nail may begin to lift from the nail so that is no longer firmly attached
- The surface of the nail can become soft, dry, and powdery
- Thickening or thinning of the nail
- Splitting and crumbling of the nail
- Foul odor
If you notice the following symptoms or suspect you may have a fungal nail infection, it is important to schedule an appointment with your podiatrist promptly. While over-the-counter medicine is available at local stores, often the level of medication is not strong enough to eliminate infection or prevent it from returning. Home treatments such as routine cleansing washes may improve infections if caught early, but are not necessarily recommended as the main course of treatment.
A physical examination and discussion of medical history will help your doctor to determine if you have a fungal infection, often samples are taken either from the nail, skin surrounding the nail, or debris from underneath the nail.
Once a fungal infection has been determined, treatment can begin. However, it is important to note that treatments vary depending on the nature and severity of the infection. Treatment for fungal infections on toenails and fingernails can be expensive and long term, and most medications are required to be taken for several months.
Topical creams can help to treat mild cases and manage symptoms. Oral antifungal medication is an option and is the more common method for treating fungal nail infections, which will continue to work even once the patient has completed their prescription. In more severe cases or cases where chronic infections are developing, surgical treatment may be required. In this form of treatment, the removal of the whole infected nail or partial nail removal can allow for direct application of treatment.
All forms of treatment can be conducted in our office, and the doctor will monitor the nail growth to make sure the infection is cleared.
In terms of prevention, proper hygiene and regular inspection of nails are the first lines of defense. Here are some tips to maintaining proper hygiene:
- Wash your feet and hands with soap and water. Remember to dry them thoroughly.
- Wear shower shoes or footwear in public areas such as locker rooms, gyms, spas, pools, and showers.
- If you have sweaty feet, be sure to change your socks throughout the day if needed. Allow your shoes to dry for 24 hours before wearing them again. Use antifungal spray or powder on your feet and shoes.
- Clip nails straight across with clean nail clippers. Disinfect the clippers or any other nail instruments after use.
- Don’t share towels or nail clippers.
If you suspect you may have an infection or have questions regarding fungal nail infections, please contact Kenrick J. Dennis, DPM today.