Updated: Sep 14, 2020
Looking for clear, simple information on what fungal nails are, how you might have caught an infection and how it can be managed? That's the aim of today's blog, as well as talking a little about reducing risk factors.
What does it look like?
A small dot under the edge of of your toenails or fingernails that gets bigger as time goes on. As the infection takes hold, the nail starts to thicken and discolour. The nail edges become jagged and you might notice white or yellow streaks across the surface.
What happens then?
After a while the nail edges become brittle and start crumbling. The nail becomes thicker, darker, turning yellowish/brown and can start to smell. Left untreated the infected nail can become loose, painful and may eventually require surgical removal.
How did I get it?
Most likely from contact with somebody already infected. As with athlete's foot you can become infected by sharing towels or nail-cutters, walking barefoot on communal floors or skipping out on a pair of fresh socks. Damp environments such as the insides of your shoes, bathrooms or changing room floors are where the fungus thrives. The most common sources in our experience tend to be gym showers, unsanitised equipment used in beauty salons, or a person in the household who already has it.
So is it the same as athlete's foot?
No. The fungus responsible for athlete's foot affects the bottom of your feet through the skin while the fungus that attacks your nails go through, well, the nail.
But it's also a fungus...
There are many types of fungus that can infect your nails. Some microscopic fungi live harmlessly on your skin; concentrated in one area of your skin is a different matter.
Okay. How do I manage it?
The first step is to figure out what kind of infection you have. Psoriasis can mimic the appearance of fungal nails, while yeast and bacteria can also infect the nail. The first step in managing fungal nails is to take a sample cutting or scraping and send it to a lab for mycology analysis. Once the results return we can best determine how to treat it. It may be something we can do in-clinic or may need onward referral, depending on type of infection and severity.
If nothing else, get a diagnosis!
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I can't wait that long!
Fungi have been on Earth for close to a billion years, which gives you an idea of how resilient - and persistent - they are. Repeat infections are extremely common, so while you're waiting for the mycology results you should start taking steps to ensure that you minimise the risk of re-infection.
Wear your own slippers or shoes indoors
Use your own towels and wash them separately at the correct temperature
Throw out old closed shoes or trainers
Wear fresh socks daily; go for moisture-wicking ones
Keep your toenails trimmed short and straight
Keep your feet dry, and allow them to cool when possible
Wash your hands and feet with soap and water on a daily basis
How long does it take to clear?
Months. It depends on the type of fungus and the severity of infection. If you're over 65, diabetic, have a weakened immune system or have poor circulation it may take even longer.
I'm pregnant - is it okay to buy treatment from the chemist?
You should only take medicines prescribed or recommended by your GP, particularly during first and third trimester. At the clinic we'd only recommend the safest course for you and sometimes that means saying no.
How will I know it's gone?
Once the new nail has grown in to completely replace the old one AND you've done your best to minimise sources of re-infection. I often hear patients complain that the cream/powder recommended by the chemist hasn't worked.
The reason it's important to treat fungal nails is because if left untreated they can spread, not only to your other nails but to others in your household. For most people it can mean extremely thick, brittle and crumbly nails; for diabetics it can lead to infection, possibly cellulitis.
Fungal nails can be frustrating, unsightly and difficult to deal with. Talk to us if you're having problems and want to focus on managing the problem rather than trying out various OTC medicines. If you're a diabetic, over 65, have circulatory issues or you're forced to wear shoes that make your feet hot and sweaty, it's worth making an appointment too so that we can work to minimise the risks.