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Is That Fungus Under My Toenail?

Onychomycosis1What is Toenail Fungus?


Toenail fungus is one of the most common nail diseases seen by doctors. Its represents approximately 50% of all nail disorders. It’s estimated that over 35 million people in the US (close to 10% in the adult population) have some level of toenail infection.  Although it is most prevalent in people over 50 it is seen in patients of all ages.

Nail fungus or “Onychomycosis” is a fungus (Dermatophyte) infection that sets up camp underneath your toenails.   It is caused by the same fungal strains that cause “Athlete’s Foot”.  Even a microscopic breach under the nail plate will let the athlete’s foot fungus get under the toenail.  Once the fungus is in the nail it feeds on keratin which makes up the majority of your toenails.   Usually your toenail is a good barrier against fungal invasion.  However, that barrier created by the nail also works against you when you are trying to treat it, making the fungus hard to get to.

However, if left untreated the fungus can spread to your other toe nails and cause fungal infections in other parts of the body.

It is important to mention that another common cause of toenail fungus, is from contaminated nail polish.  Fungus can and will live in toenail polish.  Using toenail polish on someone’s nails that are infected with fungus with contaminate the polish and then pass it on to the next nail, or person using the polish.  So much for sharing toenail polish.  

What Does Toenail Fungus Look Like?

Toenail fungus is pretty easy to spot. The nail will initially show abnormal borders at the tip of the nail – at the front edge of the nail where it is attaching to the nail bed.  Over time the nails become thicker, discolored (yellow or brown), and develop some brittle, crumbling changes to the nail integrity.

Sometimes you can discern a distinctive smell coming from the infected toenail. As the nail fungus progresses it causes irritation to the nail bed which produces more “Nail Substance” (keratin based debris) which then appears to builds up underneath the nail, making the nail appear thicker and thicker.  Periodically the infection can cause the toenail to flake and sometimes disconnect from the nail bed and fall off.

Where did the fungus come from?

Fungus likes warm, dark, moist places like the environment of a shoe.  It is also easily spread to many surfaces. Therefor, many public places are known for being a breading ground and source for the fungus.

The most common places for fungus transmission are often from moist, public areas like:

  • showers
  • gym floors
  • locker rooms
  • manicure and pedicure nail salons or shared nail clippers
  • pools
  • sharing linens, shoes, socks, etc… with someone who had the fungus. As you can imagine it is easy to re-infect yourself with contaminated shoes, socks, showers, etc.