The chances are you haven’t paid much attention to your toenail health. Most people are either unaware they have a problem or don’t consider it a serious issue until toenail fungus worsens over time. Not keeping your toenails in good shape and leaving a fungal infection untreated, can cause fungus to spread – eventually destroying your entire nail and infecting other nails.
If your toenail has turned yellow, there’s debris beneath the nail bed, a rancid smell or the nail looks malformed, you likely have onychomycosis. Left untreated, the condition WILL worsen. It can also spread to other nails or cause athlete’s foot and skin infections.
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Why You Should Never Ignore Toenail Fungal Infections
Having discolored or distorted nails from a fungal infection may appear insignificant in comparison to type-2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Since toenail fungus isn’t initially a painful infection, most individuals delay seeking treatment until they’re in pain.
Nail fungus is highly contagious and may lead to other severe infections and spread beyond your toenails, especially if you have poor immune system function. As the condition worsens, it will start to affect you in other ways.
While most individuals are otherwise healthy and may see toenail fungus as a cosmetic issue, avoiding treatment may lead to health issues that are beyond aesthetics. The following are some of the potential complications associated with not treating toenail fungus.
1) Foot Pain
According to the American Podiatric Medical Association, when left untreated, an infected nail will become thicker and more distorted, resulting in a higher level of pain. This makes it increasingly difficult to walk when you’re wearing your shoes.
2) Spreading of the Fungus
At times, when left untreated, toenail fungus may spread to the surrounding skin of the foot, resulting in athlete’s foot (ringworm of the feet). The symptoms of athlete’s foot include red, itchy, cracked skin.
The fungus grows quickly in warm, moist, and dark environments. Therefore, if you wear shoes and socks every day and you have toenail fungus, the chances of it spreading increases as well. According to the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology, the fungus that causes toenail infections can also spread to the genitals, leading to jock itch, which affects both men and women.
3) Widespread Infection
One risk factor for fungal toenail infections is having diabetes or any other condition that may lead to poor peripheral circulation. Poor blood circulation increases a person’s risk of contracting toenail fungus because the blood supply to the toes is significantly compromised.
According to a German study published in Hautarzt, toenail fungus may be a significant predicting factor for the development of diabetic foot syndrome and foot ulcers. Therefore, if you have a chronic condition or an illness that suppresses your immune system, such as cancer or AIDS, it’s important you take extra precautions to keep your feet clean and dry, and your toenails trim.
Furthermore, if toenail fungus spreads to the skin, it may cause the skin barrier to crack, allowing bacteria to penetrate it easily. This may lead to cellulitis, a bacterial skin infection characterized by swollen, tender, red skin that must be treated using antibiotics. In severe cellulitis cases, the infection may enter the bloodstream and become deadly.
Any relatively minor foot injury, including a fungal nail infection, can lead to severe complications if they are not addressed immediately.
4) Loss of Nails
Toenail fungus can cause infected toenails to separate from the nail bed – a condition called onycholysis.
If this occurs, your doctor may have to remove the loose portion of your nail to prevent further complications. Even if the affected toenail isn’t loose, it may still have to be removed if the infection continues despite using traditional treatment methods. In this scenario, your doctor may use a procedure called avulsion to remove the entire nail that has been affected.
Sometimes, your doctor may use a procedure called matrixectomy to remove the nail permanently, depending on the severity of the condition. The procedure terminates the region of new growth at the base of the nail, either chemically or surgically, preventing the nail from growing back.
How to Treat Toenail Fungus
You may have a fungal toenail infection if one or more of your toenails show the following signs and symptoms:
- Whitish to yellow or brown discoloration
- Ragged, brittle or crumbly
- Dark in color, caused by debris continually building up under the nail
- Foul smelling
Your doctor may take a sample of the affected nail to confirm the presence of a fungal infection. If the test is positive, your doctor may prescribe a topical or an oral antifungal medication to help treat the infection.
Bear in mind that over-the-counter cream may not penetrate the nail bed deep enough to destroy the fungus and prevent it from returning. Therefore, you may have to use OTC antifungals repeatedly or use a prescription-strength medication to treat the problem.
If the affected region doesn’t hurt, your doctor may observe the nail and take a wait-and-see approach. Although the fungus will not disappear on its own, it may not get worse during this period. However, if you do have a cosmetic concern, your doctor may prescribe a small dose of medication to remove the infection. Much depends on your current state of health.
Symptoms of more severe toenail fungal infections include discolored, distorted and thickened toenails that later become painful. In this case, it’s important you see a podiatrist, who will develop a treatment plan involving the following.
This method involves removing thickened regions of the nail. Doing so, will reduce pain and allow topical treatments to penetrate better and work more effectively in eradicating the infection.
2) Topical Ointments
This includes medications, such as Pedinol Pharmacal Fungla Tincture and prescription drugs, such as ciclopirox (Penlac nail lacquer). In many cases, topical ointments fail because either they don’t penetrate deep enough to kill the fungus, or people forget to apply them every day.
3) Oral Medication
Currently, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) only approves the use of Lamisil (terbinafine hydrochloride) and Sporanox (itraconazole). Consistent use of these medications over a three-month course has led to favorable success rates.
A University of Queensland study found that terbinafine may be somewhat more effective than itraconazole in treating toenail fungus. Although these drugs don’t strain the liver as much as other medications, it’s vital to get blood tests every 4-6 weeks to observe liver function.
Diflucan is approved by the FDA to treat infections, which may sometimes be used for fungal toenail infections caused by yeast.
In severer cases, the toenail may have to be removed surgically or chemically dissolved. This is often done only on the affected portion of the nail, in anticipation of the remaining nail growing back healthy. If the entire toenail has to be taken off, artificial nails or light-cured resins can be used to form a temporary coating. This will help safeguard the underlying tissue until the toenail grows back.
Taking care of your toenails, and keeping your feet clean and dry, can prevent a fungal infection from spreading. Wearing shoes that cause your feet to sweat, being older or male, taking antibiotics, damaged nails, having poor circulation or an impaired immune system will increase the likelihood of fungal infections.
Toenail fungus won’t go away on its own if you don’t treat it. Untreated fungal nail infections will worsen gradually over time, resulting in considerable discomfort, an unpleasant smell, and a cosmetically displeasing appearance.
If you suspect you have toenail fungus, you should start using a toenail fungus treatment without delay.