A fungus is a parasitic one celled organism that lives off other more complex organisms such as our human bodies, for instance, and they thrive most happily under warm and humid conditions. A wide variety of fungi exist within our bodies, some are beneficial while other cause diseased conditions.
Also known as onychomycosis or tinea unguium, nail fungus is a common fungal infection that can affect the nails of either the fingers or toes but the occurrence are by far more frequent in toenails.
Symptoms of Nail Fungus
Nail fungus usually starts with a yellowish white spot appearing under the nail but as the fungus develops and spreads, it causes the infected nail to discolor, thicken and become crumbly and brittle, particularly around the edges. Further progression of the nail fungus causes the nail to disfigure and, in more severe cases, the nail will painfully separate from its bed and emit an unpleasant odor. In rare instances, nail fungus infections may spread to other parts of the body.
Causes of the Fungus
Although not exclusively, most nail fungus infections are caused by a family of fungi called dermatophytes that attack the nails through microscopic cuts or tiny disconnected areas between the nails and their beds. The invading dermatophytes will then cause havoc but only if the conditions are favorable for their development — darkness, humidity and warmth.
Nail fungus occurs most often in toenails because shoes and tight fitting socks are consistent with the ideal environments for dermatophytes to flourish. Furthermore, the blood supply to the toes is more scarce and sluggish than it is to the finger and, therefore, the body’s immune system is less active and less prone to fight back in those regions.
Elderly men and those with family history of the infection are most at risk for developing nail fungus infections as are those who perspire heavily, work in hot and moist environments, always wear socks and shoes and walk around barefooted on wet public floors as well as diabetics and others with conditions of poor blood circulation and weak immune systems.
Treating Nail Fungus
Nail fungus infections are extremely hard to cure but there are a number of options:
- Oral medications. Antifungal medications such as Itraconazole (Sporanox), Fluconazole (Diflucan) and Terbinafine (Lamisil) do not cure nail fungus but they do help the new nail growth to come in free of it and thus eventually replace the infected nail.
- Antifungal lacquer. These are nail polishes called ciclopirox (Penlac) or amorolfine that require daily direct applications to the infected nail for up to twelve months and then it only cures about ten percent of those who try it.
- Surgery. In cases of extreme severity and pain, the affected nail may be surgically removed to allow a new and uninfected nail to grow in its place.
- Over the counter. Any number of creams, ointments and lotions occupy space on the shelves of drugstores. They all promise cures but, sorry, they have been proven ineffective.
- Alternative remedies. The following alternative remedies have not been scientifically substantiated but they are allegedly effective: Australian tea tree oil, grapefruit seed extract, vinegar soaks and mentholated ointments.
Preventing Fungus in Future
Whether the existing therapies work or not is irrelevant in light of the fact that prevention is in the best cure. So, to prevent nail fungus infections keep your nails short and clean; keep your toes and fingers dry; change your socks often and expose your toes to open air; use rubber gloves when working with water; never walk barefooted in public areas; do not share gloves, shoes or socks; and avoid nail polish as well as artificial nails.