What is a fungal nail infection?

Fungal nail infection is an overgrowth of a fungus that invades the nail and can live in, on or beneath the nail. Its medical name is onychomycosis and is caused by the same fungus that causes athletes foot.

It grows most commonly on the toenails, but fingernails may also become affected.

Bacteria and fungus lives on everyone’s skin, but a fungal nail infection may occur when the fungus finds itself in an ideal environment for a prolonged period of time.

There are several ways you can get a fungal nail infection. If you leave athletes foot untreated for example, it can spread to the toenail.

Fungus thrives in warm, moist environments, so it can get a grip and become a problem if your feet are constantly in hot sweaty socks and shoes.

You may also acquire a fungal nail infection if you come into contact with someone who has a fungal infection, so do not be tempted to borrow anyone’s shoes or share towels or nail clippers or scissors.

If your hands are in water for prolonged periods of time, perhaps as part of your job, they may also become prone to a fungal nail infection.

While it is not normally considered to be a serious condition, it can take a long time to treat and irradicate.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of a fungal nail infection include discolored nails – either white or yellow, an increase in thickness of the nail, and sometimes an unpleasant odor from the nail. The nail becomes brittle and prone to flaking and breaking. Eventually, the nail may separate from the nail bed and detach completely.

What does it look like?

Fungal nail infections start gradually at the edges of a nail, so it may not be immediately apparent when you first get it.

a fungal nail infection

As the infection spreads to the nail it moves to the middle of the nail. The nail becomes brittle and pieces can break off the nail. This can be painful and cause swelling around the region of the nail.

Risk factors

There are several risk factors to acquiring a fungal nail infection.

The at-risk factors include:

  • A weakened immune system
  • Diabetes
  • Circulatory problems, eg. heart failure
  • Aged 65 or older
  • Existing athletes foot infection, or other fungal infection.

What to do if you get fungal nail infection

If you do get a fungal nail infection, it’s important to seek medical advice from your doctor if you fall into any of the risk factors described above. You should also visit your doctor if the infection has spread to other nails.

If you’re not in any of those at-risk factors, or if the infection has just started, then ask at your local Pharmacy for advice. A pharmacist will have range of treatments they can offer for a fungal nail infection, or they may recommend a visit to your doctor, depending on your circumstances.

You should:

  • Wash your feet regularly
  • Keep your feet dry
  • Change your socks at least daily
  • Air your feet as much as possible


  • Tight fitting shoes that make your feet hot and sweaty
  • Borrowing or sharing footwear, towels, nail clippers


There are several treatments available, from over the counter solutions at your local pharmacy to stronger remedies from your doctor. Alternative holistic treatments are also available.

Treatment Duration

To effectively cure a fungal nail infection, depends on individual factors of the case and how advanced it is. Over the counter remedies may take up to a year to work and are not always effective.

A doctor may prescribe medication that take from three to six months to work, but this medication comes with side effects and due to potential interaction with other medication you may be taking, it may not be feasible to prescribe. It is therefore best to stop such an infection in its tracks as soon as it’s detected.

Hygiene is key, as is keeping the affected nails dry.

No matter what your circumstances though, you should seek medical advice if you detect an infection.

If treatment fails

If left untreated, or the nail becomes painful, your doctor may want to remove the nail. If this course of action is followed, your doctor will remove the nail and treat the infection so that a new, healthy nail can regrow. Regrowth can take upwards of a year.

Fungal Nail Infection and Diabetes

If you have diabetes, you should pay special attention to a fungal nail infection. Poor or reduced circulation is common in those with type 2 diabetes and this in turn affects the body’s self-repair duration.

This is important for those with diabetes, because a fungal nail infection can lead to increased risk of lower leg infection. This can become life threatening if left untreated, and may require lower leg amputation.

Given the seriousness of infection for those with diabetes, the importance of visiting a podiatrist (a foot specialist) once a year cannot be understated. They will treat fungal nail infections perhaps differently or more aggressively than in a patient that does not have diabetes.

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