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Nail fungus - causes and treatments

Get your nails beautiful again after fungus strikes

Author: Charlotte Kuchinsky October 23 2011

woman applying topical solution to nail fungus

Nail fungus, medically known as onychomycosis, is actually quite common. However, in the past couple of decades the number of reported cases seems to be on the rise. That may partly be because people are more comfortable with talking about the condition than in past years.

Unfortunately, onychomycosis has become a beauty problem for women. While it most often associated with toenails, the disease can also affect fingernails. The problem is further compounded by the fact that there are a number of reasons behind nail fungus, making it even more difficult to both diagnose and treat.

Nail fungus often begins at the tip and, if not controlled, begins to grow backward down the nail into the cuticle. It can also infect the sides of the nail, and sometimes it can even infect the surrounding skin.

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A different form is for white superficial onychomycosis to grow first on the outer layers of the nail. However, if it isn't treated, it begins to grow down into the different nail layers causing them to become spongy and soft.

A third kind of fungus grows under the skin around the nail and finally spreads outward toward the center.

Some of the responsible fungi are related to a candida infection, and are an outcome of nail trauma, such as ingrown nails. This type also strikes individuals who immerse their nails, hands or feet, into water for an extended period of time.

Fungi are unique in that they don't require light to survive. They love hiding in moist areas like spa baths, swimming pools and showers. They therefore generally only survive on nails or skin that is also submitted to the same warm, moist conditions, perhaps because of heavy socks and shoes, which is why they happen more often in the foot than the hands.

Aging is a common cause of nail fungus, as is diminished blood flow. Some medical conditions like diabetes, athlete's foot and psoriasis can also lead to the condition.

Nail fungus symptoms

The symptoms of onychomycosis include brittle or crumbling nails, discoloring or dulling of the nails, nail bed thickening and unusual, distorted shaping.

Infected nails may separate from the skin, although not enough to eliminate the nail without surgery.

Some nail fungus is uncomfortable or even painful and may carry an unusual odor.

How to treat nail fungus

There are two basic types of treatment for onychomycosis. The first is an antibiotic, which is almost always oral in nature. The other involves a topical treatment, usually a lacquer or paste. The type of treatment option will depend on the type and severity of the fungus involved.

Topical treatments are less expensive and carry fewer side effects. Some people even swear by home remedies like apple cider vinegar, hydrogen peroxide or tea tree oil. Soaking the affected nails in pure apple cider vinegar at least twice a day for about one-half hour often works for light fungus infections. However, it takes time, usually a few weeks or even months.

A similar soak using 3% hydrogen peroxide is also effective in some cases. Again, it must be done at least twice a day, over a period of weeks or months, in order to see any change.

Tea tree oil is a natural microbe fighter so it can also be effective in the treatment of onchomycosis. The foot must first be cleansed thoroughly and patted completely dry. Then apply the tea tree oil twice a day with a small brush or cotton swab, covering all the nails that are infected. Be sure to don a pair of cotton socks to keep the oil from staining the carpet, furniture, bedding or other clothing. Once the fungus is better, continue treating the nail as a preventative measure.

A commonly prescribed nail lacquer cure is Penlac. It is generally brushed onto the nails once a day, though a physician may give alternative instructions. As a rule, it isn't advisable to use Penlac with other anti-fungal medications, as it may interact negatively with them - always notify your physician of any other medications you are using.

There are side effects associated with Penlac. The most common include blistering, burning, change in nail shape, ingrown nail, nail discoloration, oozing around the nail, rash and redness. A doctor should be notified of these or any other symptoms. Additionally, if a woman becomes pregnant or engages in breast-feeding, she should contact her physician for instructions before further treatment.

Creams like Lamisil can also work in some cases. This slows or eliminates the creation of ergosterol, which is needed for nail fungus to take hold. The cream is applied directly to and around the affected nails until the fungus is eradicated. Lamisil cream has some side effects as well. They include burning, itching, redness and stinging. Such symptoms should be reported to a physician before using the cream again. Lamisil pills may be prescribed for onychomycosis as well.

Another oral drug used for treatment is sporanox. Both this and Lamisil pills are effective in many cases. They help new nails to grow so that the old nail can be discarded or cut away. However, oral medications can be dangerous, and can result in side effects from skin rash to, in extreme cases, liver damage. For that reason such medication must be done under the care of a physician and taken exactly as prescribed.

There are also over-the-counter medications that help some people with onychomycosis, but their effectiveness varies.

How to avoid nail fungus

While it may not be possible to avoid all types of nail fungus, there are certainly steps a person can take to help.

  • Avoiding walking barefoot around public places like swimming pools, spas, and gyms.
  • Choose socks that allow the skin to breathe.
  • Stay away from shoes that are too tight or confining.
  • Avoid constant exposure to moist, humid areas at work or at home.
  • Get any nail injury checked out by a physician.

Onychomycosis is ugly and destroys the beautiful look of nails. For that reason, it is important to treat it right away. Better still, take all precautions possible to avoid it altogether.

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