Many people seem to think that fungi can only infect the skin, but given the opportunity, fungi can also infect the nails. The problem is that most people do not know they have a fungal infection of the nails. Infact, the majority of individuals who have unsightly nails try and hide them with a cover of nail polish- never knowing that an underlying fungal infection could be festering. The classic presentation of a nail fungus infection is characterized by a white or yellowish discoloration under the tip of the finger or toenails. With time the fungus can spread deeper into the nail and worsen the skin discoloration. The nails eventually start to crumble, and may become very unattractive and painful.
Fungal infections of the nails usually develop when the nails are continuously exposed to warm moist environments such as wet bathrooms, dirty wet floors, gym areas, sweaty sneakers, spas, and sauna or exercise rooms. The fungus which affects the nails is very distinct from athlete’s foot fungus. The athlete’s foot fungus will not infect the nails. Even when fungal nail infections are recognized very easily, they are quite difficult to treat.
Most individuals who acquire the nail fungus do not immediately have symptoms. However, once the fungus continues to grow, the following symptoms will become obvious:
– The nails will become unevenly thick. The thickness is very unsightly
– Even the slightest trauma will cause the nails to crumble. The nails often are brittle, easy to crack and do not have any inherent strength.
– The shape of nails is uneven and the texture is very rough.
– The nails will appear dark, lifeless and not polished.
– As the infection continues, the nails will gradually become darker and often turn black.
In some cases, the entire nail may separate from the nail bed. Pain is also a common complaint in individuals who have a nail fungal infection. The pain is constant but not intense. As the infection progresses, there may also be an associated foul smell.
Risk Factors for Nail Fungal Infections
Fungi which cause infections of the nails are very durable organisms. They do not require a lot of nutrients or sunlight to survive. The fungus has only one preference- the environment must be moist and humid. Such environments are present in your dirty constrictive shoes, swimming pools shower rooms, gyms, sauna and so on. The fungi usually enter the skin through small cracks on the skin alongside the nail. In the majority of cases, the fungi simply die if one maintains good hygiene and takes good care of the nails. However, if one continues to provide a warm and humid environment, the fungi will start to grow.
Nail fungus can affect either the hand nails or toe nails. Because the feet are always covered with shoes and exposed to more humid environments, the fungi usually are commonly seen on the toe nails. It is also believed that fungi also thrive in conditions where blood supply is less. Blood supply problems are more commonly encountered with the feet rather than the hands.
Not everyone gets nail fungi infection. Nail infections are typically more common in older individuals compared to children. It is believed that this is because elderly individuals have less blood supplied to the extremities, the nails grow slowly with time and the body is unable to readily shed off the infected layers. Men, it appears, do acquire the nail fungus more readily than women; this is perhaps related to the work environment.
Who Gets Nail fungus?
The nail fungus is also more common in individuals who:
– sweat profusely
– live and work in a warm and humid environment
– wear tight constrictive echoes with little aeration
– wear thick socks that are unable to absorb any moisture
– never wear any foot wear like sandals when going to the gym, showers or the pool
– are diabetic
– have decreased blood supply in their legs
– have an altered/suppressed immune system (e.g. HIV)
Besides being able to cause permanent damage to the nail along with pain, fungal infection of the nails is not life threatening in normal healthy people. However, in diabetics and in individuals with depressed immune system, the infection can easily spread from the nails to the blood system.