Nail fungal infection: Causes, treatment, and symptoms

Nail fungal infections are the most common diseases of the nails, making up about 50 percent of nail abnormalities. Fungus is normally present on the body, but if it overgrows, it can become a problem.

They are also known as onychomycosis and tinea unguium.

Both fingernails and toenails are susceptible to infection, which usually appears as discoloration and thickening of the nail, and crumbling edges. The condition most commonly occurs in toenails.

Around 10 percent of the adult population suffers from nail fungus infection. Here we will provide an overview of nail fungal infections, in addition to common causes, treatments, and symptoms.

Fast facts on nail fungal infection:

Microscopic fungi in the nail cause the condition.

It can affect both fingernails and toenails but is more common in feet.

Diagnosis is carried out by examination of the debris under the nail.

Treatment

Person clipping their toenails
One of the simple methods of prevention for nail fungal infection is keeping nails short and clean.

Treating nail fungus infections can be a long and expensive process. There are oral antifungal medications, topical ointments, and alternative therapies. Over the counter creams and ointments are available, but they have not proved very effective.

Oral medications for nail fungus infection include:

terbinafine (Lamisil)

itraconazole (Sporanox)

fluconazole (Diflucan)

These typically take up to 4 months before fully replacing the infected nail with uninfected nail.

In some extreme cases, a physician will opt to remove the entire nail.

Home remedies

Topical nail fungus treatments can appear clear nail fungal infections, but often do not completely cure the infection.

Other home remedies shown to have potentially promising clinical effects on nail fungus include:

Vicks VapoRub: This is normally used to treat coughs. However, a study published in 2011 suggests that it could be beneficial in nail fungus treatment.

Snakeroot extract: A 2008 study demonstrated that this naturally antifungal plant can be as effective as ciclopirox, a prescription antifungal treatment, in treating nail fungus.

Oregano oil: This contains thymol, which is said to have antifungal properties. Oregano oil is sometimes combined with tea tree oil in treatments, but side effects can be potent and combining them can increase the possibility of an allergic reaction or irritation.

Ozonized oils: Olive oil and sunflower oil are examples of oils that have been infused with the same gases present in the ozone layer. There are numerous studies confirming the benefits of this type of oil in treating nail fungus. In one study, ozonized sunflower oil showed greater clinical effects than the prescribed antifungal medication ketoconazole.

Other alternative medicines used to treat nail fungal infections include Australian tea tree oil, vinegar, listerine, and grapefruit seed extract. However, there is no scientific evidence supporting the use of these products.

Toenail fungus, image credit Pepsyrock, 2010
Image credit Pepsyrock, 2010

Severe onychomycosis

Severe onychomycosis, Image credit Bobjgalindo, 2009
Image credit: Bobjgalindo, 2009

Fungus on nail of big toe

Big toenail fungus, Image credit Allorge, L., 2014
Image credit: Allorge, L., 2014

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