Toenail infections often cause nails to thicken and become distorted, which may be accompanied by itching and odor. The fungal infection that causes toenail fungus is contagious and can spread to other parts of your body if left untreated. In most cases, fungal infections may spread to unaffected toenails because the fungi in your socks and footwear can infect other nails.
The same fungi responsible for toenail fungus may also infect the skin around your toenails, as well as other areas of your skin. They may also cause jock itch, when they spread to the groin, causing red, itchy and scaly skin, as well as odor. Presence of circular, scaly and itchy spots on your skin or scalp may also indicate a fungal infection.
To prevent fungal infections from spreading, it’s important that you change your socks frequently and wash your towels on a regular basis. If you notice signs of fungal infection on your body, you should see your doctor to control the infection.
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Understanding the Spread of Fungus to Skin
Fungi are microorganisms that are only visible under a microscope. There are many different types of fungi, including yeasts, dermatophytes, and non-dermatophytes that may cause a fungal nail infection (onychomycosis.) Sometimes these fungi live on your skin without causing any issues. However, an increase in fungal growth can lead to an infection, which can spread to other parts of your skin and body.
If you have diabetes, are going through chemotherapy or have a suppressed immune system, proper treatment and monitoring is necessary to prevent the fungus from exacerbating your toenail fungus, and spreading.
According to the American Diabetes Association, 22% of people with diabetes develop toenail fungus. Moreover, people with diabetes have a higher risk of developing sores that don’t heal after fungal toenail infections. When sores do not improve, patients may have an increased risk of severe health issues.
It’s critical that you see your primary doctor or a dermatologist as soon as you notice symptoms of nail fungus as they will be able to determine whether it’s an infection or something else.
Sometimes, if left untreated, toenail fungus can spread to the skin surrounding infected nails, causing athlete’s foot. The fungal infection usually begins between the toes and spreads to other regions of your feet if proper care and treatment measures are not followed. Athlete’s foot is common in individuals whose feet become sweaty while wearing tightfitting shoes.
Signs and symptoms of athlete’s foot include a scaly rash that may cause itching, burning or stinging sensations. Athlete’s foot is caused by the same type of fungus that also caused toenail infection, ringworm and jock itch. It’s contagious and can spread to other regions of the body, or other people, through contaminated towels, clothing, shoes and floors.
Wearing shoes on a regular basis, having sweaty feet and being in warm and humid conditions promote fungal growth, increasing the risk of spreading. Athlete’s foot is commonly spread via contact with an infected individual or infected surfaces. You have a higher chance of getting athlete’s foot if you walk barefoot in public areas, such as saunas, swimming pools, locker rooms, and communal showers.
Athlete’s foot infection can spread to other regions of the body, including:
- Nails. The fungus that causes athlete’s foot can also affect your nails. If you already have toenail infection, having untreated athlete’s foot can cause other, uninfected nails to get infected. Toenail infections are more resistant to treatment due to the nail acting as a natural barrier against topical treatment. However, taking proper preventative steps, such as keeping your feet clean and dry and using antifungal treatments can help control the infection and prevent it from worsening or spreading.
- Hands. Individuals to pick at or scratch infected parts of their feet are placing themselves at risk of developing a similar infection on the hands. Avoid touching infected areas. If you do get in contact with an infection, be sure to wash your hands with soap immediately.
- Groin. Jock itch is commonly caused by the same fungus that causes toenail fungus and athlete’s foot. The infection can easily spread from the feet, whether you have toenail fungus or athlete’s foot, and infect the groin. This can occur from contaminated hands or using contaminated towels.
How to Prevent Toenail Fungus Spreading to Skin
If you wear socks and shoes all day and have toenail fungus, the infection can easily spread because fungus proliferates in moist, dark and warm environments. In addition to causing athlete’s foot, the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology suggests that the fungus can also spread to the genitals, causing jock itch, which can occur in both men and women.
Follow these tips to prevent infecting your feet, and getting athlete’s foot or other fungal infections.
- Keep your feet clean and dry, especially between the toes. After showering, allow your feet to air out by staying barefoot for as long as possible while you’re at home. Make sure your skin is always dry between your toes before wearing your shoes.
- Change your socks frequently. If your feet get warm and sweaty, try changing your socks at least twice a day to prevent the infection from growing. It’s worth investing in some absorbent socks for people with sweaty feet.
- Wear breathable footwear. Wear sandals and flip-flops whenever possible and avoid shoes made of synthetic materials, such as rubber or vinyl as they can make your feet sweat more. Choose proper-fitting shoes that are breathable.
- Avoid wearing the same shoes every day. Alternating your footwear can help your shoes dry before you wear them.
- Avoid sharing shoes, towels and nail tools. Sharing personal items can increase the risk of the fungal infection spreading.
- Use a different towel for your body. Avoid using the same towel you use for your feet on the rest of your body to prevent the infection from spreading to your skin or groin. Change your towels frequently and wash them with hot water to disinfect them.
- Avoid walking barefoot in public places. Wear flip flops or waterproof sandals in public showers, locker rooms, and pools.
In some cases, toenail fungus may spread to the skin and cause it to crack. A crack in the skin can allow bacteria to get in, causing cellulitis – a condition that causes the skin to get red, swollen, painful and tender. According to the US National Library of Medicine, cellulitis must be treated with antibiotics.
In most cases, cellulitis affects the skin on your lower legs and the surface of your skin. However, it can infect other areas of your body and face and affect underlying tissue as well. If cellulitis isn’t treated, it can get severe, causing the infection to enter the bloodstream and become life-threatening.
People with weakened immune systems, diabetes, a history of cellulitis and conditions such as eczema and psoriasis have a higher risk of contracting cellulitis. In addition to skin symptoms, you may also experience dizziness, fever, fatigue, lightheadedness, chills, sweating and shaking if you have severe cellulitis. If you suspect you have cellulitis, see a doctor immediately.
Individuals with poor circulation, diabetes or a preexisting condition should take extra measures as they have a higher risk for cellulitis.
Some of them include:
- Moisturizing your skin regularly to prevent it from cracking.
- Quickly treating superficial nail and skin infections, such as toenail fungus and athlete’s foot.
- Monitoring the feet and legs every day for signs of injury or an infection.
- Wearing protective gear while playing or working out.
- If you notice a break in your skin, clean it immediately and treat it with a topical antibiotic regularly to prevent infection. Cover the wound with a bandage and change it every day, or more often, as needed – until a scab forms. Keep a lookout for redness, pain or drainage, as these could indicate an infection.
To reduce the risk of spreading the infection, especially among diabetics and those with suppressed immune systems, you must take proper precautionary steps. When you don’t treat toenail fungus, you’re allowing the growth of living organisms in your nail to spread.
In most cases, fungal nail infections don’t go beyond the foot and are not life-threatening. However, early signs and symptoms of toenail fungus do not cause any discomfort, making the condition easy to overlook. Even though your toenail fungus may not cause any issues in the beginning, if left untreated, it can result in severe complications, including nail and foot pain, and spread of fungus to surrounding skin and other areas of your body. Toenail fungus can also cause the skin to crack, allowing the onset of cellulitis – a potentially lethal condition.
If you have mild toenail fungus, you can prevent it from worsening using over-the-counter antifungal treatments, while taking steps to keep your feet clean and dry. In case the infection does show signs of spreading in the affected nail, or other parts of your body, schedule an appointment with your doctor immediately. Your doctor will monitor your infection and prescribe the right medications to prevent the infection from spreading.