Nail Fungus

What is Nail Fungus?

Nail fungus is the result of a fungal infection and manifests itself as a white or yellow spot located under the fingernail or toenail. Since fungi are present in the body at any given time and exist alongside different types of bacteria, it is not an uncommon condition. This infection is related to another infection called  Athlete’s Foot which, in turn, also affects the skin of the foot.

Nail fungus is also called onychomycosis or tinea unguium. Nail fungus tends to develop over a period of time so symptoms are often overlooked at first. The fungus can lead to discoloring and thickening of the nails or make nails more brittle. In many cases, the infection does not cause any problems and therefore, does not require immediate treatment.

What are the Symptoms of Nail Fungus?

The signs of nail fungus are visible but not all of them may appear at once. They may appear over time.

At any given point, you may notice subungual hyperkeratosis, which is a type of scaling that occurs under the nail. You may notice yellowish or whitish streaks on the nail (lateral onychomycosis). Distal onychomycosis, or a crumbling of the tips or corners of the nail, may occur. You may also see pits in the nail or flaking on the surface or yellow spots that appear near the bottom of the nail. It’s possible to lose the nail.

Nail Fungus Causes

A nail fungus can be caused by a variety of different fungi. Toenail fungal infections are more common than fingernail infections, and one of the most common for toenail infections is the dermatophyte fungus. There are also molds that can cause these nail infections. Though a nail fungus can strike at any age, older people are more likely to get them. As people get older, their nails get drier and more brittle, and this makes them more susceptible to a fungal infection. Older adults also may have a weaker immune system, diabetes and/or poor blood circulation, and all of these conditions make a fungal infection more likely.

Athlete’s foot can begin on the skin of the foot and then spread to the nails and infect them. It is contagious enough to be able to spread from one toe to another. If you sweat heavily, walk barefoot in wet areas that are communal or have had athlete’s foot in the past, you are more likely to get a nail fungus. Any time you walk barefoot in an area that may have been contaminated with a fungus, such as a locker room or communal shower, you can pick up a nail fungus.

How is Nail Fungus Treated?

You can try to treat the nail with over-the-counter products but they are not usually successful. Some of the over-the-counter treatments include topical solutions or nail lacquer, which are brushed on the nail like nail polish.

If you think you have nail fungus you should see a doctor who will likely prescribe an antifungal medication. This may be terbinafine (Lamisil), griseofulvin (Gris-Peg), itraconazole (Sporanox), or fluconazole (Diflucan).

Treatment for nail fungus may be required several times as one treatment will not always get rid of the fungal infection. About 50% of the time, the infection will return.

Nail fungus Prevention

The best preventative measures against a nail fungus are to keep your feet clean and dry. Keep your toenails short and trimmed straight to avoid them snagging on infected items or cutting the skin of your other toes. If you go into communal areas that are moist, always wear shower shoes or similar footwear. Wash your feet regularly and wear clean, dry socks. Moisture-wicking socks are best for keeping your feet dry even on hot days. Regularly clean any tools that you use on your feet and toes, and never share those tools with others to avoid contamination.

Last Reviewed:
October 10, 2016
Last Updated:
January 24, 2018