Toenail fungus is stubborn, highly contagious and very difficult to treat. A mild toenail fungus may initially look like a cosmetic issue, but it shouldn’t be ignored. Because it doesn’t tend to bother people at the outset, people often wait for it to go away on its own. Unfortunately, it doesn’t.
What happens to toenail fungus if left untreated? A fungal nail infection will worsen over time. Toenail fungus could destroy the rest of the nail, infect nearby nails, damage the surrounding skin, lead to skin conditions, and result in health issues. Visible deformation will become more obvious, which can be embarrassing.
Most young and healthy individuals who ignore toenail fungus may not have any immediate cause for concern. But if the fungus isn’t monitored and treated, it will progress toward the cuticle, causing the toenail to thicken and become discolored. Over time, the infected nail may even separate from the nail bed. Untreated toenail fungus can become extremely painful and embarrassing.
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What Happens When You Ignore Toenail Fungus?
Although there is no pain at the outset, there is a high risk of discomfort if left untreated. We’ll look at what you should expect to happen as the condition progresses.
1) Pain and Discomfort
When a toenail gets infected by a fungus, it starts by changing its color, turning white or yellow in most cases. Much depends on the type of fungal infection and the level of progression.
Over time, an infected toenail can thicken and change its shape. This can cause the toenail to lift from its bed and become distorted, resulting in intense pain when you walk or wear shoes for prolonged periods. Walking on uneven surfaces may become uncomfortable as well.
Keep your feet clean and your nails trimmed at all times. Clip your nails weekly, and trim them straight across to prevent ingrown nails. Apply an antifungal treatment to infected nails twice daily and change your socks at least twice a day.
It helps to keep the skin around your toenails moisturized, with cuticle oil or a natural substitute, such as coconut oil. Coconut oil has natural antimicrobial properties that may help to control the growth and spreading of the fungus.
2) Loss of the Toenail(s)
Fungal infections proliferate in moist environments, often residing in space between the nail plate and the nail bed. If left untreated, the toenail can separate from the nail bed – a process called onycholysis. This separation can be partial or complete.
The procedure where the entire nail is removed is called avulsion. Sometimes toenails may require surgical removal, even if they don’t separate much from their nail bed.
This is mainly the case if the infection does not respond to topical or oral antifungal treatments. If your nail is removed, it may take several months for a healthy nail to grow back.
Another procedure, called matrixectomy, involves the permanent removal of the infected nail. However, unlike in the case of avulsion, matrixectomy involves destroying an infected nail chemically or surgically, without the possibility of a new nail growing back.
3) Spreading of the Infection
If toenail fungus is left untreated, it can spread to soft tissues. In most cases, this is the skin surrounding the affected nails and the soles, resulting in athlete’s foot. Symptoms include intense redness and itchiness, as well as thickening and cracking of the skin.
Numerous factors can facilitate the spread of the infection. For example, if you wear shoes for prolonged periods or don’t clean your shoes and change your socks and towels regularly, the risk of the infection spread is much higher.
People who sweat a lot have a higher vulnerability. According to the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, wearing sweaty, tight-fitting shoes and walking barefoot in public showers, pools and locker rooms can put you at risk as well.
Putting on your underwear before your socks can also increase the risk of the infection spreading to the groin, causing jock itch. It is caused by the same fungus that infects your toenails. Jock itch causes itchiness and redness.
Allow your feet to dry as soon as you leave the shower. Apply an antifungal treatment, wear a fresh pair of socks and then wear your underwear and the rest of your clothes. This will prevent the fungus from getting in contact with your underwear and genital area.
4) Generalized Infection
Toenail fungus is more common among people with systemic or chronic conditions that weaken their immune system functions. For example, fungal infections are common among people with diabetes. Toenail fungus among people with diabetes is also a significant risk factor for the development of foot ulcers, diabetic foot syndrome, and amputations of the foot.
If not carefully monitored, the fungus can spread to the skin around the nails, causing the skin to crack. A break in the skin allows easy access for bacteria, increasing one’s risk for bacterial infections. A severe and deadly complication linked to this is cellulitis. If a bacterial infection occurs, it can cause the skin to redden, swell and become tender.
Cellulitis is a condition that requires immediate medical attention and treatment with broad-spectrum antibiotics. In patients with weaker immune systems, the infection can enter the bloodstream, causing sepsis – a life-threatening condition. Therefore, a seemingly harmless and painless toenail fungus can become deadly if it is left ignored.
5) Fungal Paronychia
Fungal paronychia is another, less common complication that occurs if you leave your toenail fungus untreated. The condition causes the skin around the toenails to swell.
The swelling is accompanied by symptoms such as tenderness, redness, and pain. In severe cases, it may cause the abscess forming in the infected region to be transmitted to bones or tendons.
If the infection enters the bloodstream, it can prove to be fatal.
6) Other Complications
Depending on the severity of the infection and the condition of the patient’s immune system, other complications can occur.
If you ignore a toenail fungus, it may progress to such an extent that it causes nerve damage in the affected region. Toenail fungus can also affect blood circulation in the area, especially among people with circulatory disorders or diabetes.
In some cases, toenail fungus can get severe to the point that it causes foot ulcers, which require rigorous treatment to prevent life-threatening issues.
Toenail fungus is easier to treat in its early stages. Initial signs of toenail fungus to keep an eye out for include discoloration and thickening of the nail. As the condition worsens, your nail may become more brittle, with chalkiness along the edges.
Whatever method you choose or your doctor recommends, it’s vital to be patient because the nail has to grow out before you can determine whether the treatment is working. Sometimes this can take many months, but taking action is the only way to clear up toenail fungus for good.