Fingernails and toenails are just some of those body parts that most of us don’t put much thought into—until there’s something wrong with them, that is. The most common nail condition is a fungal infection. In fact, according to the American Orthopaedic Foot and Ankle Society, nail fungus affects 20% of the general population and a whopping 75% of people over the age of 60. As dermatologists and physician assistants who are experts in the health of your hair, skin, and nails, our providers at Dermatology Associates of Atlanta (DAA) treat nail fungus on a regular basis. We believe that the best way to catch problems early is through regular exams and patient education, so to that end, here’s what you should know about nail fungus:
With the clinical name onychomycosis, nail fungus is exactly what it sounds like—a fungal infection in, around, or underneath the nail. It can begin anywhere around the nail (usually in the nail bed under the nail) and spread throughout the area. It’s actually the same fungus that causes athlete’s foot. In its early stages, nail fungus simply looks like a yellow or white spot on your nail (it’s more common in toenails but can certainly appear in fingernails as well). As the infection progresses, the discoloration spreads throughout the nail and the nail also becomes thicker and more brittle, and it may become flaky and crumble around the edges.
Where Nail Fungus Comes From
Put simply, a fungal infection occurs after you come into contact with the fungus. Nail fungus thrives in environments that are wet and warm, which means that the prime territory for nail fungus is environments that are warm, damp, and frequented by a lot of people (like gym locker rooms, community showers, and swimming pools). Contact with a fungus doesn’t always result in an infection, but some people are more susceptible than others, including people with diabetes, circulatory problems, or immune deficiencies.
The Problem with Nail Fungus
Until it has progressed far enough to make wearing shoes uncomfortable, nail fungus primarily causes cosmetic and convenience issues. However, the infection can spread to other nails and to other people as well, and in some cases, it can cause a loss of the nail, an infection in the blood stream, or a skin infection called cellulitis, which can be quite dangerous. People with diabetes or immune deficiencies are at a particularly high risk for serious complications from nail fungus, so if you have diabetes or a weakened immune system and notice symptoms of nail fungus, you should seek treatment promptly.
How Nail Fungus is Treated
Until recently, nail fungus was very difficult to treat, because topical antifungal medication needs to reach the source of the infection. In the case of nail fungus, this is usually the nail bed, so the nail itself blocks topical treatments from doing their job. So, for years, the most effective treatment has been oral medications. However, at DAA, we’re proud to now offer the latest and most advanced way to treat nail fungus: a nail fungus laser treatment called LunulaLaser®. If a fungal culture shows that you are a candidate, this innovative procedure involves just a few brief, painless treatments, during which the laser’s energy passes through the nail (without actually harming the nail) to fight the fungi in the nail bed. Nail fungus is notorious for being stubborn and difficult to clear, but LunulaLaser® has a very high cure rate.
How to Prevent Nail Fungus
Once you have all your nails back in shape and fungus-free, preventing future infections is important. Here are a few tips:
- Don’t wear closed shoes too long, particularly if your feet become warm and sweat. Try to wear shoes that breathe, change your shoes and socks frequently, and give your feet time to cool off and air out every so often.
- Wear “moisture-wicking” socks that keep your feet drier.
- Always wear shoes when you’re in public, including wearing sandals as “shower shoes” when you’re in a public shower or locker room.
- Keep your toenails trimmed so that the nail does not extend past the edge of the toe. Longer nails can pick up and trap fungi more easily.
- Disinfect your nail clippers after every use, and if you go to a nail salon for a manicure and/or pedicure, make sure their tools have been disinfected between guests.
- If you get athlete’s foot, treat it promptly.
- If you wear plastic gloves frequently, give your fingers a chance to air out every once in a while.
- Sprinkle antifungal powder in your shoes when you take them off for the evening. This won’t treat a fungal infection, but it can hinder fungi from surviving and growing inside your shoes.
Nail fungus is one of those conditions that tends to go untreated for a long time, because in its early stages, it’s easy to ignore. But it’s truly an issue that is worth getting treated, not only to prevent complications, but also simply to have the freedom to wear open-toed shoes without self-consciousness. If you suspect you may have nail fungus and would like to discuss your treatment options, schedule an appointment with us. Or, for more skin care tips, special offers, and more, follow Dermatology Associates of Atlanta on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.