What Is Nail Fungus? Everything You Need To Know

how do you know if you have nail fungus

Just as the name suggests, the major cause of nail fungus infection is fungi.  Like bacteria, a fungus also naturally resides on your skin, nails and hair. However, when they multiply and become excessive, they can cause infections. At one point or another in a person’s life, they will develop a fungal infection. The difference comes in where some people will get the infection more times than others.

Although nail infection is neither uncommon nor life-threatening, it can be very difficult to treat and unpleasant. It can have its toll on the self-esteem of an individual because the nails become distorted and discolored. The infection does not just show up, it develops slowly and steadily. Toenails are usually more affected than fingernails although on some rare occasions it does happen.

Types of Nail Fungal Infection

There are two main types of fungal infections that affect the nails.

  1. Distal Subungual Onychomycosis: This affects the nail as well as the nail bed. It causes the nail to separate from the nail bed. This condition is hard to treat and the effects can last a lifetime.
  2. Superficial Onychomycosis: This is less serious and it affects only the surface of the nail. The nail bed is unaffected. The nail generally doesn’t separate from the nail bed.

Superficial onychomycosis is much easier to get rid of than distal subungual onychomycosis.
Fungal infections can affect literally any part of your body. Fungi are present alongside various bacteria in your body. If the fungus grows, an infection is caused. Onychomycosis is a fungal infection that affects the toenails or fingernails. Fungal infections are hard to notice at first, because an immediate difference in the appearance of your nail may not be seen at first.

The Onset of a Fungal Nail Infection

A fungal nail infection occurs when fungi grow in large amounts beneath the nail. In some cases it is on the surface of the nail also. An environment that is moist is most suitable for their growth. The same fungi that cause athlete’s foot, ringworm and jock itch cause nail infections. In the event of contact from someone else who has a fungal infection, you can develop the infection too.

Fungal infections are more likely to affect your toenails than your fingernails because your toes are usually confined to your shoes. The moist, warm environment helps the growth of the fungi. One must be cautious while getting a manicure or pedicure at a nail salon. Ask the staff how the tools are disinfected and how often they are. Emery boards, nail clippers can spread fungal infections, if they aren’t sanitized properly.

Risk of Developing Fungal Infections

The different causes of fungal nail infections are varied and each one has a treatment of its own. Despite the fact that the onset of a fungal infection is not preventable, some factors are likely to increase the occurrence of one. You stand at a higher risk of developing an infection if:

  1. You have diabetes
  2. You wear artificial nails
  3. You have nail injury
  4. You swim in a public swimming pool
  5. Have moist fingers or toes
  6. Have a nail injury
  7. Are over 65 years of age
  8. Have a weak immune system
  9. Wear closed toed shoes

Nail infections affect men more than women and are found in adults, rather than children. If your family has cases of members that are prone to fungal infections, then you stand a chance of being affected. Adults of the higher age group are more likely to be at risk of developing fungal infections because of their slow circulation levels. Their nails also take a considerable amount of time to grow and thicken with age.

Visible Signs of Nail Fungus Infection

The visible signs of a fungal nail infection includes the following:

  1. Scaling beneath the nail which is often known as subungual hyperkeratosis
  2. Yellow streaks appearing on the surface of the nail
  3. Flaking white areas on the surface of the nail
  4. A crumbling corner or tip of the nail
  5. Yellow spots occurring on the bottom of the nail
  6. Loss of the nail entirely.

Common Signs

The signs of a fungal infection are

  1. An odor emanating from the infected nail
  2. A distorted nail that lifts off the bed
  3. A brittle or thickened nail

Other infections that affect the nails, show the same symptoms as does a fungal nail infection. The only way to diagnose the fungal infection is to consult a doctor. A scraping of the nail is enough. This will be examined under the microscope to check is if it’s a fungal infection or not. In some cases your sample might have to sent to a lab for analysis.

Toenails are most affected because the fungi thrive in wet, warm and moist environments. This defines your feet during the day especially if you wear socks and closed shoes. Your feet are more likely to sweat and do not have a way to air out so the fungi grow. Because women wear open shoes and are more likely to remove their shoes even in the office because heels can be painful to wear, men wear their shoes and socks all day every day. This is why nail fungus infection is more common in men than it is in women.

what is nail fungus

Athlete’s foot is the major cause of fungal infections. When athlete’s foot is left untreated, it could spread to other parts of the feet and eventually get to the nails. You can also get fungal infections from other people who have athlete’s foot.  How do you prevent nail fungus infection?

  • Make sure you thoroughly clean your feet every day
  • Thoroughly dry your feet every time you get wet
  • Ensure you take a break from shoes that cause you to be sweaty and hot
  • Avoid walking around barefoot in areas that many people walk barefoot such as swimming pool areas, and showers since a person with athlete’s feet could spread the fungus to anyone
  • If you cannot avoid going to such areas, wear flip-flops
  • Use ZetaClear for nail fungus infection.
  • Avoid shoes that are too small as they could cause continuous trauma to your nails
  • Avoid shoes that are too big as you will cause trauma to your feet every time your feet suddenly move to the edge of the shoes
  • Avoid any trauma on your nails such as being stepped on or dropping items that hit your feet
  • Eat healthy meals so that your immunity is always strong enough to fight infections


Over the counter drugs aren’t used to treat nail infections because they do not provide reliable results. You doctor might prescribe oral antifungal medication such as the following:

  • terbinafine
  • griseofulvin
  • fluconazole
  • itraconazole

You can also use other antifungal treatments such as nail polish or other topical solutions. These treatments are used just as nail enamel is. These medications might have to be followed up for a long time depending on the impact of the infection. Topical solutions generally do not help with curing of the toenail fungal infections. Treatment does not mean that the infection won’t recur. In most cases the fungal infection will occur again.


Fungal infections are difficult to cure at first and medication might not work immediately. The nail infection is not completely cured until a new nail regrows. The new nail has to be free of infection, otherwise medication has to be continued. Even if the new nail is free of an infection, it can get infected at any time. In severe cases there could be permanent damage to your nail which will have to be removed.  The major complications include the following:

  1. A permanent loss of the infected nail
  2. Recurrence of the infection
  3. Spread of the infection to other areas of the body and possibly the bloodstream as well
  4. Discoloration of the infected nail.
  5. Development of a bacterial skin infection called cellulitis

If you have diabetes and a fungal nail infection, consult your doctor for further treatment. People with diabetes are at a greater risk when it comes to the development of serious complications caused by these infections. If you think you are developing an infection, consult your doctor immediately.

When to See a Doctor

If the fungal infection appears to be spreading to the surrounding tissues of your fingers or toes, then you must seek help. If you are treating the infection, but the it only gets worse and does not improve after several weeks, you will have to consult your healthcare provider. Consult your doctor immediately if you experience pain or swelling in the tissues surrounding your nails. Fever or pus are also symptoms that demand professional help. These are essentially signs of a bacterial infection and treatment with antibiotics will be necessary.

How to Diagnose Nail Infections

A lot of these nail infections look similar regardless of the underlying causes. Healthcare workers generally rely on lab tests to fully determine the cause. Most of the time infections are caused by fungi so an over the counter prescription may be needed. If the infection does not respond to the treatment, then diagnosis is needed. Any professional help should be sought out on in the event of no visible signs of improvement.

A sample is sent to the lab for analysis and testing. The first thing the lab experts do is to figure out what organism caused the infection. If the specimen is tested by a process called staining and culturing, then it will take six whole weeks for the results to be returned to you. A genetic test called PCR or polymerase chain reaction provides results within hours. Once the diagnosis is made, treatment can begin.

Organisms Which Cause Nail Infections

Fungi are responsible for most nail infections, they are microscopic and thrive in damper darker environments. They thrive in shoes, shower stalls, and other moist environment. Some fungi have been found to be beneficial, whereas the others cause nail infections in your body. These cause harm because they are so tiny, you won’t be aware that an attack is underway.

Fungal infections are caused by a group of fungi called dermatophytes. Dermatophytes infect nails, skin and hair, they are not known to penetrate deep into the body tissues. The most common dermatophyte is Trichophyton rubrum. It is reported to cause nail infections, as well as athlete’s foot.

Yeasts also cause infection in your nails. You could develop a yeast infection in your nails if you take hormone medications or antibiotics. Yeasts tend to reside in your body, but illnesses and body stressors might cause them to multiply rapidly, resulting in an infection.

Acting Immediately Helps! 

If prompt action is not taken immediately, you will develop additional problems. The fungus will spread to the rest of your nail, causing it to discolor, turning it a dull yellow color. Your nail will weaken, becoming brittle. It chips off at certain areas. It could also begin to flake, chipping at times you least expect it to. The nail also grows thicker. Extreme cases might result in the separation of the finger to toe from the nail. This condition is called onycholysis. Debri builds up beneath your nail causing a dark discoloration. It might result in pain and itchiness of the tissues surrounding your infected nail. A slight foul odor also is possible. The nail and its surrounding tissues end up looking unhealthy and unattractive.


Your toenails are most likely to develop fungal infections because the circulation isn’t as strong as that in your fingers. Reduced blood flow to your toes makes it harder to fight off infections. Your hands are uncovered most of the time so the likeliness of them developing infections are less.  Also, toenails grow slower than fingernails, so recovery is slower.

People with health conditions such as diabetes and peripheral arteries disease and people who play sports such as basketball, baseball and football should be extra careful since they are at a higher risk of getting the infection. if you have ever had nail fungus infection, you need to be more careful as re- infection can occur.

If you have fungus nail infection, maintain high hygienic standards and avoid passing it on to others especially your spouse.