Fungal infections of the nails are common. The fungus grows in the nail bed, where the nail meets the skin. The fungus grows slowly and does not spread to internal organs. The main concern is the nail discoloration (usually yellow) and change in nail texture and growth. Nails can become crumbly, break easily, and grow irregularly. But because other nail conditions can mimic fungal infection, most doctors will confirm the diagnosis by sending a nail clipping for laboratory evaluation – especially if treatment is being considered.
Fungal infections are not commonly contagious or spread easily between people. The fungus grows in people whose bodies “allow” the fungus to become established without mounting an immune response to suppress the fungus. We know of no ways to boost your immune system to make fungal infections less likely. You may be able to prevent fungus infections by:
Keeping your feet dry, avoiding constant moisture
Avoid non porous, closed shoes made of synthetic materials
Wearing absorbent socks
Wearing water proof sandals when in public showers
What can be done about fungal nail infection?
Because the fungus grows slowly, it is hard to eliminate. The anti fungal medications that eliminate the fungus are strong, must be taken by mouth, and must be taken conscientiously for months in order to be effective. Each drug has potential side effects on other body organs (especially the liver, skin, or bone marrow). To monitor for side effects, periodic blood testing must be obtained, usually monthly, during the time you take the medication. Any symptoms suggesting organ damage should be reported immediately to your physician, such as: unusual fatigue, severe loss of appetite, nausea, yellow eyes, dark urine, pale stool, skin rashes, bleeding, enlarged lymph glands, or signs of infection.
Unfortunately, anti fungal creams applied directly to the nail cannot penetrate the nail bed to kill the fungus at its source, so they are not usually effective.
How effective are the medications at curing the fungus?
The anti fungal medications usually suppress the nail infection when taken as directed. Unfortunately, they cannot guarantee permanent cure. At least 1 in 5 patients (20%) and probably more will have a recurrence of the original nail infection at some time, and re-treatment with medication would be necessary.
Should I take medication to treat my fungal nail infection?
Doctors usually recommend treating fungal nail infections only when such infections cause secondary problems, like pain, recurring ingrown toenails, or secondary bacterial infections of the nails or skin. If the nail infection causes no symptoms, then doctors often will discourage treatment because of the potential side effects, the need to monitor the blood throughout therapy, and the high recurrence rate. Patients with liver or heart disease generally should not take these medications.
Some insurance companies require documentation of secondary problems beyond the mere presence of the fungal infection before they will cover the costs of the anti fungal medications.
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