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What to Do About Foot and Toenail Fungus

What Is Foot and Toenail Fungus and What Are Its Causes?

It is very common to get a fungal infection on your feet or toes. Most fungal infections are caused by dermatophytes, a disease-causing fungus that grows on body surfaces such as skin, hair, and nails.

Athlete’s foot—the most prevalent foot fungus—thrives in warm, sweaty places like the insides of your athletic shoes, which is how it got its name. However, foot fungus can develop in multiple environments, natural and man-made, as long as there is lots of moisture where fungi can grow. These include shared areas at gyms or pools, soil and grass, or even shared items such as shoes, socks, or towels from household members who are infected.  

Unfortunately, athlete’s foot is highly contagious and the fungus can easily spread to the toes and toenails, causing infections. There are more than three million cases of toenail fungus in the US every year. Not all toenail infections are from athlete’s foot or even from a fungus; some are caused by yeast or mold. These are much harder to cure than fungal infections.

What Does Foot and Toenail Fungus Look Like?

Athlete’s foot

Athlete’s foot appears as a scaly red rash on the bottoms or sides of the feet often accompanied by itching, dry or cracked skin, stinging, and odor. You can also have moist, raw skin between your toes. Though athlete’s foot is fairly easy to treat with over-the-counter anti-fungal creams or sprays, this foot fungus is quite contagious and may easily spread to your toenails.

Toenail fungus

You may first notice a fungal toenail infection as a small white or yellow spot on the tip of your toenail, especially the big toe. As the infection progresses, the toenail can become yellow, brittle—even crumbly—and thick and uneven-looking. In the worst fungal infections, the toenail separates from the nail bed. This is called onycholysis. As fungal infections worsen, the nail beds can be tender to the touch and quite painful. Sometimes women try to pretend the pain is “normal” and ignore it altogether.

Who Gets Foot and Toenail Fungus?

Athlete’s foot is most common among young men in their teens or twenties, and infections can be mild or chronic. Infections from toenail fungus affect adults more than youth, and women—especially women over 40—more than men.

Keeping up with work, exercise, childcare (and grandchild-care) can be hard enough for a busy woman, but add the pain and discomfort of a fungal nail infection, not to mention embarrassment at discolored and distorted nails, and it’s enough to make you want to hide your feet from sight.

How to Prevent Foot and Toenail Fungus

It is difficult to cure toenail fungus and even once cured, you can be more susceptible to future infections. Foot fungus responds well to over-the-counter treatments, but it too recurs more frequently after the first infection. So it’s best to prevent a fungal infection in the first place.

Ways to prevent foot and toenail fungus are:

  • Wash your hands and feet regularly—especially at the gym or other public place where you go barefoot.
  • Dry your feet well after showering, especially between your toes.
  • Don’t share nail clippers, scissors, or files even with family members. Don’t use your toenail clippers on your fingernails.
  • When exercising, wear sweat-absorbing socks and change your socks often to prevent athlete’s foot.
  • Treat old sneakers with antifungal sprays or powders.
  • Wear flip-flops or shower shoes in public pool areas and locker rooms.
  • Get manicures and pedicures from salons that keep tools clean and sterile—or bring your own!

How to Cure Toenail Fungus

One of the most challenging aspects of treating toenail fungal infections is how much time and diligence is required. Topical anti-fungal treatments must be applied every day, and  it can take 12-18 months until you experience first pain relief, then improvement of the nail’s appearance, and finally new healthy toenail growth.

Some ways to treat and cure toenail fungus are:

  • Trim infected nails. Using large toenail clippers and/or nail nippers, keep your toenails well-trimmed by cutting them straight across to the toe line. Thin thickened nails by gently scraping away the crumbly debris under the nail with a file. This will get rid of some fungus and help reduce pain by alleviating pressure on the nail bed and toes. Soak your toes first to soften the nails or trim after a shower.
  • Home remedies. There are a lot of home remedy suggestions for treating toenail fungus ranging from soaking your toes in vinegar solutions, applying poultices with baking soda, or applying diluted tea tree oil every morning and evening.
  • Over-the-counter antifungal treatments. Antifungal creams and ointments treat toenail infections while helping to keep new fungus out so new nails can grow. Some treatments must be applied every day, others are applied once a week. It’s a good idea to apply topical treatments to both the foot and nail simultaneously to prevent foot fungus from spreading to the toes. If you trim your toenails well (see above) before applying an antifungal, the medicine can reach deeper into the nailbed.
  • Oral/combination therapy. Some studies have shown that taking antifungal pills and applying antifungals to your nails can be more effective than using either treatment alone. Oral medications can typically treat toenail fungus in three months. In stubborn cases, topical and oral medications may be combined to provide the best possible treatment. Oral medications must be prescribed by your physician or health care practitioner.

Toenail Fungus Remedies and Treatments

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved several medicines as topical applications to help treat foot and toenail fungus and prevent the fungus from recurring. PROFOOT anti-fungal products containing Tolnaftate 1% are clinically proven to cure and prevent fungal infections on skin around, adjacent to, and under nails, making it easy to treat fungal infections all day, every day, until they have cleared. ProClearz Fungal Shield is a safe and effective clear formula that dries quickly with no unpleasant odor. The 1 oz. bottle comes with a brush-on applicator designed to reach skin areas around and under nails.