Fungal nail infections are also called “onychomycoses”. They are common infections caused by microscopic fungi that feed off keratin. They most commonly affect toenails, but can also occur in hand nails. Because they are highly contagious and unsightly, they should be treated as quickly as possible to avoid damaging the nail and contaminating the environment.
- The origins of fungal nail infections
Fungal nail infections are due to contamination by microscopic fungi which penetrate under the nail, invade the top layer of skin (corneal layer) and gradually spread to the base of the nail, leading to its deformation. These fungi fall into two categories:
• In most cases, the infection is caused by dermatophytes, which are fungi that damage the keratin in the skin and nails. They gladly take up residence in the toenails, starting with the big toe: a yellowish-white patch appears and the nail becomes thicker. The infection spreads to the base of the nail, changes colour (brown, green, yellow) and separates the nail from its bed. Eventually, the nail matrix is affected and the frail nail ends up disappearing. This type of fungus is highly contagious and is generally caught by walking barefoot on a dirty floor (swimming pool, gym, sauna, etc.).
• More rarely, the yeast-type fungus Candidas albicans can contaminate nails. This type of fungal infection starts with a red and painful swelling around the nail, from which a drop of pus may appear if you press on it. Then the nail is invaded and may turn green if a secondary bacterial infection is present. These Candida nail infections affect the hand nails only and occur most often in people whose hands are frequently in contact with water (restaurant workers, gardeners, cleaners, etc.).
- Predisposing factors
- Heat, humidity and confinement (in tight shoes, for example).
- Heavy perspiration.
- Repeated contact with water.
- Damaged nail due to repeated mechanical micro-injuries or nail psoriasis.
- Untreated athlete’s foot – even something as minor as intertrigo between the toes can spread to the nails.
- Preventive measuresBy adopting good hygiene habits you can often avoid fungal nail infections altogether or prevent them from reoccurring:
- Never walk barefoot in changing rooms, gyms, or at swimming pools. Wear light sandals instead.
- At the pool or after exercising, use a disinfectant shower gel on your feet.
- Avoid washing your hands too often (while still ensuring good hygiene, of course).
- After all contact with water, dry yourself thoroughly between the fingers and toes.
- Use one towel per person and never share.
- Change socks every day, and don’t spend too long in sweaty socks.
- Treating fungal nail infectionsFungal nail infections do not disappear of their own accord. If the infection is left untreated, it usually spreads to the nail matrix and then to the other fingers or toes.
That is why it is important to start a treatment at the first signs of infection: see your skin specialist, who will decide on the best course of treatment based on the type of fungus, the extent of the infection, and your medical history. Topical treatments and oral antifungals can be used.
Treatment is often long-term: it must continue until the nail is fully healed. This generally takes several months. To achieve a full recovery, the treatment instructions with regards to regularity and duration must be strictly followed.