Sports & Exercise

Can You Go Swimming with Toenail Fungus?

Fungal toenail conditions affect up to 10% of the adult population. They are often caused by another infection – ‘athletes foot.’ Indeed, people who are involved in sports tend to contract fungal foot infections because fungi proliferate in warm, damp, and sweaty environments!

Keen swimmers often question whether it’s safe to go swimming with toenail fungus, or whether this will put others at risk of contracting the infection. This is an important question that lacks a straightforward answer.

The short answer is – Yes, you can go swimming with toenail fungus.  If you’re going to swim in a modern, chlorinated swimming pool, it’s unlikely that others will contract fungi from the pool water.  This is because chlorine acts as a disinfectant. However, toenail fungus is easily transmitted at the poolside, so precautions must be taken to protect other swimmers.

Swimming with a Fungal Nail Infection

Some people argue that swimming actually improves their fungal toenail infection. However, specialists warn against using the pool to ‘treat’ a fungal toenail infection, because this infection can spread to others at the poolside.

If you’re looking to get rid of toenail fungus, it would be better to do so with a formalized treatment plan.  Fungal nail infections are notoriously difficult to eradicate, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

In this guide, we’ll start by discussing how to go swimming safely with toenail fungus. Then, we’ll discuss the efficacy of various treatment methods to help you get your nails back to good health.

Chlorine Kills Toenail Fungus

If you’re intending to go swimming with a fungal nail infection, consider the type of pool you’re going to. Most public swimming pools use chlorine, and other strong chemicals, to control the spread of disease.

However, in recent years it has become more popular for health clubs and swimming pools to go ‘chlorine-free’ so check this detail before you jump in the pool. Swimming in a chlorine-free pool with toenail fungus is not recommended!

How to Stop Fungi Spreading at the Poolside

Although chlorine kills nail fungus in the water, the fungal spores can proliferate at the poolside.

It’s important to take the following precautions to prevent others coming into contact with the fungal spores:

  1. Wear flip-flops or sandals around the poolside and in the shower to stop your feet having contact with the ground. Many pools offer disposable foot covers so wear these over your flip-flops wherever possible.
  2. There are ‘swim socks’ which can be purchased to stop the spread of infection. They can be worn in the pool and at the poolside and provide a barrier between your fungal infection and the pool.
  3. After showering, dry your feet thoroughly with a clean, dry towel. Never, ever share your towel with anyone else.
  4. After showering and drying yourself, take care not to put your bare feet on the floor or locker room bench when putting your shoes back on.
  5. Keep toenails trimmed
  6. Ideally, start some treatment for fungal nails before going to the pool. Your options are explained in detail below!

What Is a Fungal Infection?

Fungal or yeast infections are a common occurrence that can affect various parts of the body. Some common yeast infections include – athletes foot, jock-Itch, candida, ringworm and of course fungal nail infection.

Fungi are microbes that occur naturally in our environments. They reproduce and multiply in ‘spores.’ For example, the ‘spores’ you see on a moldy loaf of bread are just one type of fungi. Fungi spores are present in the air and on many of the surfaces we touch. When we breathe in air or touch a surface contaminated with these spores, we come into contact with fungi.

Our bodies can deal with a certain amount of fungi. However, if the quantity becomes too much for the immune system to handle, this can result in a fungal infection. This is the reason why people with a weakened immune system are much more susceptible to fungal infections.

Fungi spores multiply and proliferate in warm, damp environments such as gyms and swimming pool locker rooms! Fungal infections usually develop very slowly and can take a long time to go away. Thankfully, they typically do not pose a severe threat to health, unless the person suffering has a weak immune system.

Fungal Toenail Infections

Fungal nail infection (or Onychomycosis) occurs when there is an overgrowth of fungi in the nail.

The yeast and fungi take hold, and ‘feed off’ the keratin within the nails. The infection most commonly affects the toenails, but it can also occur in the fingernails. Often this occurs when people pick at an infected toenail, and the fungal infection spreads to the fingernail.

Fungal nail often starts out as ‘athletes foot.’ It is essential to treat athletes foot as soon as it arises because once it reaches the nail, it becomes a lot more resistant to treatment.

Athletes foot is another fungal infection that is usually picked up in warm communal environments (gyms, pools), but it can be picked up from almost any environment. It is exacerbated by not drying the feet properly (especially between the toes) and not changing shoes and socks frequently enough.

Depending on their severity, fungal nail infections range from virtually painless to very sore and debilitating. Various treatments are available, and these can be targeted according to the level of severity.

Do I Have a Fungal Nail Infection?

Fungal toenail infections are much more common in male adults.

To determine if you have a fungal toenail infection, consider if you can relate to any of the following characteristics:

  • Color Change – Once fungi have taken hold, the toenail will start to turn yellow, brown, gray, or even black.
  • Infection Spreads Inwards – It’s typical to notice a color change on the outskirts of the nail, and this gradually moves inwards as the infection progresses. If you can tackle the fungus when it is at the top of the nail (right on the very edge of the nail), it will be easier to eradicate.
  • Texture Change – It’s common for the nail to become thick in some areas, and thin and brittle in others. The nail may feel rough.
  • Breaking off –This condition may cause the nail to become brittle. Bits of the toenail may flake off, or the whole toenail may become displaced.
  • Pain –Pain is quite a common side effect of this condition, and it can become debilitating. It may be difficult to wear certain types of shoes if these put pressure on the toes.
  • Foul Odor –They may smell very unpleasant, particularly in hot weather. Studies show that odor is the main reason people decide to seek treatment for the fungal nail infection.

Do I Have Nail Fungus or Nail Psoriasis?

Although toenail fungus seems a straightforward condition to identity, there is one toenail condition that looks very similar – toenail psoriasis. It’s crucial to determine which of these you have because the treatment options are different.

Psoriasis is an autoimmune disease that can cause flaky, patchy skin all over the body – including the nails. As we know, toenail fungus is caused by an overgrowth of fungi, so needs to be treated as a fungal infection.

Nail Psoriasis

To determine which condition you have, consider whether you have any patches of dry, red or flaky skin elsewhere on the body. If you do, it’s possible you’re suffering from nail psoriasis.

Consider if there is a painful ‘build-up’ of material under your nail. This is common in nail psoriasis but not common in fungal infections. Psoriasis also tends to cause ‘pits’ down the middle of the nail – a feature not commonly found in fungal nail infections.

Toenail Fungus

Conversely, if your toenails have gone very dark yellow or brown, or if there is a foul odor, you’re almost certainly dealing with toenail fungus.

To confuse things further, it is possible to have a fungal nail infection and nail psoriasis at the same time. If you’re finding it hard to determine which condition you have, you should visit a health professional for an accurate diagnosis.

What Are the Reasons for Toenail Fungus?

As we’ve discussed, fungal nail infections occur when the body comes into contact with fungi in the environment. However, it seems that some people are more susceptible to the effects of fungi than others. For example, cleaning habits, immunity, and overall health can determine whether or not a fungal nail infection is likely to take hold.

Below we’ll discuss the most common risk factors for developing toenail fungus:

  • A Weakened Immune System  – People with conditions such as AIDS, or a cancer diagnosis have a severely impaired immune system and are highly susceptible to yeast and fungal infections. Poor nutrition and chronic stress can also weaken the immune system, so should be remedied to protect nail health.
  • Diabetes – Poor blood circulation associated with diabetes is thought to make these people more susceptible to fungal nail infections.
  • Regularly Attending Communal Gyms and Pools – As mentioned, these can be a breeding ground for fungi spores.
  • Touching Water Regularly (and not drying yourself thoroughly) – If the skin is not dried correctly after bathing, this encourages the fungi spores to multiply.
  • Being Over the Age of 65– As we get older, our mobility gradually decreases. This can make drying the toes more of a challenge.
  • Unsuitable or Old Footwear – Wearing ill-fitting, tight shoes for long periods of time can cause the feet to sweat and yeast spores to multiply. Moreover, trainers can become infiltrated with yeast spores, so may prevent an anti-fungal treatment from working effectively.
  • Nail Injury or Trauma – A damaged nail or nail bed is more susceptible. Also, picking at the toenail injury can encourage fungus to develop and spread.
  • Sharing Nail Equipment – This can cause fungus spores to spread. Use your own specialist thick nail clippers.

Can I go swimming with toenail fungus?

Preventing Fungal Toenails

To prevent fungal foot conditions, try to adhere to the following recommendations:

  • Never share towels
  • Wear flip-flops in communal areas
  • Remove sweaty trainers as soon as possible
  • Take a shower after training, and dry your feet thoroughly
  • Throw away old shoes
  • Don’t wear other people’s shoes
  • Buy socks made of breathable fabric
  • Wear clean socks daily, preferable specialist socks for sweaty feet
  • Have pedicures in clean and reliable salons
  • Do not pick at nail injuries (consider bandaging them to remind you not to!)
  • Keep nails trimmed and tidy – but do not share nail clippers!

How to Treat Toenail Fungus

You can tackle nail fungus in a variety of ways.  Home remedies and more invasive options are available – depending on the severity of the infection.

As mentioned, toenail fungus can be notoriously difficult to eradicate completely but there are a few steps you can take to make treatment more successful. Firstly, it’s important to intervene as early as possible to stop the fungal infection from taking hold. Secondly, it’s important to be consistent – some treatments can take weeks or months to have an impact.

Essential Oils for Toenail Fungus

Most people are happy to try natural, home remedies as a first-line treatment for toenail fungus. In fact, the evidence suggests that home remedies are effective at treating mild-to-moderate cases of fungal nail infection. So, what are the best home treatments for fungal nail infections?

  1. Tea Tree Oil, Oregano. and Lavender Oil Treatments – These essential oils have anti-fungal properties. Also, they provide a pleasant scent that can combat fungal foot odor.

Try adding five drops of each oil to a bowl of warm water and soak your feet for 20 minutes. Continue this practice daily. It’s important to ensure you don’t add unnecessary moisture to your fungal infection, so make sure your feet are dried fully with a clean towel after each soak.

  1. Olive Leaf Extract – This plant extract can be taken orally or applied directly to toenail fungus or athletes foot. It contains natural anti-fungal properties so helps eliminate the fungal spores.
  2. Fennel Essential Oil Rub – A study published by Wiley Online found that Fennel essential oil (Foeniculum vulgare) is an effective anti-fungal treatment for toenail fungus. Dilute two drops of this essential oil in a teaspoon of carrier oil (i.e., coconut oil – also an antifungal!). Rub this onto the affected nails and leave for 20 minutes. Wash the oil off and ensure your foot is dried thoroughly with a clean towel. Repeat this process daily to help fight fungal nail infections.

Anti-Fungal Toenail Lacquers

Anti-fungal toenail lacquers are painted onto the nail daily, to control the spread of fungi. It is worth noting that some strains of nail fungi are resistant to nail lacquers.

Nail lacquers can yield positive results if they are used consistently. Patience is required as sometimes they take 4 – 6 months to produce meaningful results. If the infection has only just taken hold and is focused towards the tip of the nail, anti-fungal nail lacquers are a very effective treatment.

It’s essential to apply the lacquer hygienically to prevent the fungal infection spreading to other toenails or your fingernails. Consider wearing disposable gloves to apply the nail paint and always wash your hands thoroughly after applying the treatment.

You should also wear anti-fungal toenail polishes rather than the standard over-the-counter options.

Anti-Fungal Oral Treatments

For more severe cases of toenail fungus, an oral treatment can be prescribed. Oral treatments are not often recommended as a first-line treatment because they can cause side effects in a small number of people.

Commonly prescribed anti-fungal treatments include Terbinafine and Itraconazole. Terbinafine is taken at a low dose for up to 6 months, whereas Itraconazole is usually taken at higher doses for multiple, short periods of time – until the nail infection has improved.

Oral treatments are generally considered to be very effective for treating the fungal nail infection. However, they are not suitable for individuals with liver conditions as the liver needs to work hard to process these kinds of medications.

Tailoring Nutrition to Treat Fungal Infections

Yeast and fungal infections may be exacerbated by a high sugar diet because the yeast ‘feeds off’ this sugar. As such, many people recommend cutting down on sugar and processed carbohydrates to manage yeast infections and prevent them from recurring.

A review published by the British Medical Journal found that supplementing with ‘probiotics’ can help prevent a wide variety of yeast and fungal infections. Probiotics – or ‘good bacteria’ -are thought to help strengthen the bodies anti-fungal defenses.

Is toenail fungus contagious from person to person?

Probiotics can be found in yogurts and milk drinks. However, some nutritionists suggest that the content of probiotics in standard food items is too small to have a meaningful effect on the body. It’s possible to obtain a greater concentration of probiotics from supplements or homemade fermented products such as Kimchi (Korean-style fermented vegetables).

Finally, some foods have been found to have ‘anti-fungal’ properties so a diet rich in these foods may help protect against all fungal infections.

Foods with anti-fungal properties include:

  • Garlic
  • Onions
  • Seaweed
  • Ginger
  • Olive oil
  • Lemon
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Kefir and Lassi (fermented milk – homemade versions only)
  • Cranberries

Manage Stress to Prevent Fungal Infections

As mentioned, a weakened immune system significantly increases the chances you’ll develop a fungal infection. Sometimes, a weakened immune system is brought on by chronic stress, anxiety, and fatigue. This is because chronic stress weakens adrenal function, which has a negative impact on the body’s ability to fight disease.

As such, it’s important to limit stress as much as possible. Clinically proven methods for promoting stress relief include meditation, mindfulness and socializing. Another popular way of relieving stress is through exercise.

If you choose this method, ensure to take all the necessary precautions to ensure your infection doesn’t become aggravated further. For example, make sure you train in sensible, clean footwear, and if you go swimming, make sure your toes do not come into contact with communal areas.

Nail Fungus Laser Treatment

This is a relatively new treatment option for fungal nail infections. It works by killing fungal infection and encouraging healthy new nail growth. Laser treatments may be more effective at eradicating nail fungus because they can penetrate the nail bed and get to the ‘root’ of the problem.

Laser treatments are pain-free and convenient. However, they can be a very costly investment. Their overall cost can be weighed up against the efficiency of the treatment, as they seem to be slightly more efficient than other forms of treatment.

Nonetheless, because of their price tag, laser treatments are usually considered to be the last resort.

Manual and Surgical Toenail Fungus Treatment

Some podiatrists can offer ‘manual’ treatments for fungal nail infections. This involves scraping and cutting out infected areas of the nail. They’ll use their knowledge and expertise to decide which bits of the nail to tackle and what methods to use. As such, individuals are strongly recommended against trying to do this themselves. This will likely lead to further infection and a lot of pain!

Finally, in cases where all other treatments have failed, surgery may be required to remove the nail in its entirety (avulsion). Once the nail has been removed, surgical steps can be taken to ensure that it doesn’t grow back. This may be necessary in cases where a fungal infection has persisted for many years and has caused a lot of pain.

Although toenail fungus can be a challenging complaint to treat, there are a variety of options available. One of the most significant concerns is the time it takes for many of these treatments to work. In the meantime, most people want to remain active – which will probably include getting their feet sweaty and visiting communal swimming pools!

As mentioned, having a fungal foot condition shouldn’t necessarily prevent you from swimming, but you need to take extra precautions to ensure you don’t pass your infection on to anyone else. Moreover, once the fungal infection is under control, it’s crucial to commit to hygienic habits to prevent the condition from recurring!