Fungal toenails rarely cause physical pain. But they can still interrupt your life with a lot of stress, embarrassment, and loss of confidence.
Signs of this common infection include nails that are thick, crumbly, have changed colors (usually to a yellow, brown, off-white, or dull gray), or smell worse than usual. You may even notice the development of small ridges on the nail, if not major deformations.
While they start small, toenail fungus infections can cause more significant problems if they progress, particularly for those with diabetes, low circulation, or a suppressed immune system. In addition, many pools, gyms, salons, etc. will not allow people with infections to use their facilities.
Fungal nails won’t get better without treatment—only worse, and harder to treat—so it’s important to call a podiatrist and take care of your infection as soon as possible.
Where Do Fungal Nails Come From?
Fungal organisms called dermatophytes are by far the most common source of infection. These fungi feast on certain proteins common in skin, nails, and hair, and can also cause skin infections like athlete’s foot and ringworm. If the fungi can get underneath the nail through small cuts in the skin or a small opening between the plate and the nail bed, they quickly multiply and spread.
People who struggle with athlete’s foot are at high risk of developing fungal toenails, since the fungi can spread from one location on the body to another. Other risk factors include:
- Walking barefoot in public, particularly damp areas like pools and locker rooms
- Low circulation due to diabetes, old age, or other factors
- Heavy sweating
- Not switching shoes and socks when they get damp, or not giving them enough time to dry out before wearing them again.
How Are Fungal Nails Treated?
The Advanced Foot and Ankle Centers of Illinois offer multiple treatment options to fit your condition, lifestyle, and other needs.
Antifungal medications are the traditional remedy for fungal toenails. Because topical creams and sprays have a hard time reaching the fungus under the nail plate, oral medications are typically required, though they can be combined with topicals to produce better results.
The initial treatment course can last six to twelve weeks. Most people tolerate the medication well, although oral antifungals can cause side effects in some cases, from mild irritations (headaches, rashes) to more serious liver or kidney damage. We may schedule a few follow-up appointments or tests to ensure your safety.
In recent years, a newer and better treatment option has become available: laser therapy, which is available at some of our locations. The beam of light emitted from the laser passes through the toenail and attacks the fungus without endangering the surrounding skin. Sessions are about 15 minutes in length, depending on the number of toes affected and the severity of the fungus. Two or three sessions (spread out over a couple of months) are usually required to eradicate the infection.
In addition to a higher overall success rate than antifungal medications, laser treatment is also painless and has no known side effects, making it the best option for most.
In more extreme cases where the toenail fungus does not respond to other forms of treatment, we can perform a quick surgery to remove the infected nail, apply medication directly to the fungus, and allow a new, healthy nail to grow slowly in its place.
There are two very important factors to keep in mind in the days and months following treatment for your fungal toenails:
- You won’t see the full effect of treatment for several months, although significant clearing of the nail can be achieved relatively quickly (particularly with laser therapy). Even once all the fungi have been killed, you will still have to wait for the damaged portion of the nail to grow out and be replaced.
- You must continue to practice good foot hygiene. Without vigilant preventative care, the recurrence rate for fungal toenails is high. Wash your feet every day, avoid going barefoot in public, and use antifungal powders or sprays on your feet or in shoes. Create a hostile environment for fungus and don’t give them a chance to stick around again!
Whether you’ve been living with toenail fungus for years or you just noticed the warning signs today, please contact the nearest office of the Advanced Foot and Ankle Centers of Illinois today.