Fingernail fungus refers to an infection of the fingernails that occurs due to the presence of parasitic fungi called dermatophytes. This condition usually begins with an infection in or under the nail of one finger and quickly spreads to other nails, including those of the opposite hand. Despite the name, however, fingernail fungus is not limited to affecting only the fingernails. In fact, the fungus can take up residence in the toenails too.
Also known as onychomycosis, fingernail fungus is most often caused by tinea unguium, a type of ringworm that also causes athlete’s foot. For this reason, fingernail fungus is sometimes referred to as tinea of the nails. The fungi typically gain entry to the nail and the underlying nail bed via cuts and small cracks in the skin. However, molds and yeasts, such as Candida, can also cause fingernail fungus. These types of infections are referred to as non- dermatophytic fingernail fungus and most commonly occur in tropical regions where hot temperatures and high humidity exist.
Certain people may be more vulnerable to developing fingernail fungus than others. For instance, it is more common in women than men, and occurs more frequently in people over the age of 60. Diabetics and others with compromised immunity may also be at higher risk for fingernail fungus. In addition, consistently sweaty feet or the frequent use of public pools or gyms while barefoot may invite a fungal infection that can transfer to the fingernails.
Generally, fingernail fungus is not a serious condition. However, it may have a negative psychological impact since it often causes unsightly discoloration and/or deformity of the nails. It can also cause a fair amount of pain and discomfort and, if the feet are involved, may make walking or just wearing shoes difficult. In addition fingernail fungus can cause permanent damage to nails if left untreated.
Treatment of fingernail fungus does not equate to an immediate cure. In fact, treatment only provides temporary relief until the entire nail is able to grow out and be replaced by a new, healthy nail, a process that takes anywhere from 6-12 months. This is because the same mechanisms that protect the nail bed also provide a safe haven for the invading fungus. However, with persistent treatment, the infection can be successfully eradicated.
The most common prescription medication given to treat fingernail fungus is Lamisil®, which may be taken orally as a tablet or formulated into a cream to be applied to the skin. However, this drug is associated with certain side effects, including potential liver damage when used long-term. Several natural remedies reputedly help to manage fingernail fungus, though. These include the application of apple cider vinegar, hydrogen peroxide, or tea tree essential oil to infected areas.