What is Nail Fungus?
Nail fungus is also known as Onychomycosis or Tinea unguium. It is a fairly common infection that can occur in the fingernails and/or the toenails. Nail fungus starts when tiny organisms called dermatophytes grow underneath the skin. The nail provides a safe, dark and damp place for the fungus to breed and also protects it while it grows. Because of its position under the nail it is often very hard to reach or stop it from growing. Usually, fungi cause the area around the base and the sides of the nail to become red and irritated. Initially, the edges or base of the nail are affected.
As it spreads, the nail and nail bed begin to show changes. Mild discomfort, itchiness, or even pain bleeding or detachment of the cuticles may occur. Fungal nail infections can be contagious and the organisms can spread from one person to another. These organisms survive where the air is moist and can then attack bare hands and feet.
This fungal infection is more common in the toenails because socks and shoes keep the toenails dark, warm and moist.
Nail fungal infections are most likely be contracted in bathrooms, shower stalls or locker rooms. Wearing nail polish and plastic or acrylic nails can trap moisture and fungi causing an infection to occur.
It may also be spread through sharing nail files, emery boards or clippers as well as from one of your nails to adjacent nails. Fungal infections of the nail are also more likely to affect people with a weakened immune system or systemic Candida overgrowth.
Diagnosing Nail Fungus
Fungal infections can cause nail discoloration with nails changing to a yellowish, brownish color. Little white patches may also appear on the nails. A change in nail texture and growth can also occur where nails crumble, break easily and grow unevenly. Debris may also accumulate underneath the nails. Infected nails may also have a foul odor and toenails may become so thick that wearing shoes causes pain.
It is not always easy to get rid of a fungus. Anti-fungal and topical creams that are available over-the-counter are usually ineffective as they do not penetrate the nail bed to kill the fungus. Oral treatments such as anti-fungal medications may be prescribed by your health practitioner to fight off infection. These medications are quite strong and have to be taken regularly for months to be effective. It should also be noted that these medications have adverse side effects that can harm other organs such as the liver, skin or bone marrow. Most fungal nail infections have a tendency to recur.
What Causes Nail Fungus?
The most common causes of nail fungus include:
- Trauma- if a bruise or lesion causes the nail to lift and separate from the nail bed it then becomes vulnerable to the development of nail fungus.
- Environment- when there is overexposure of nails to humid and wet environments the risk of developing nail fungus increases
- Poor blood circulation- If blood flow to the area is insufficient nail health is compromised increasing the likelihood of nail fungus.
- Weak immune system- When immune function is not optimal the nail becomes vulnerable to the development of nail fungus
- Poor hygiene- Manicure and pedicure tools that have not been sterilized properly can spread nail fungus to otherwise healthy nails.
Help for Nail Fungus
Herbal and homeopathic remedies can be a gentle alternative to effectively treat nail fungal infections. Melaleuca laterifolia, also known as Tea Tree Oilhas excellent anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and healing properties. The essential oil of sweet-smelling Lavendula officinalis (Lavender) may also be used as it contains active ingredients to soothe the nail, while promoting healthy nail growth.
Other herbs such as Cymbopogon citrates (Lemon Grass) are especially helpful for fungal infections while Syzygium aromaticum (Clove Oil)is considered an excellent antifungal and antibiotic essential oil. These natural ingredients may be used directly on the affected area to target the fungal infection on the spot. There are also herbs which can be taken internally for their anti-fungal and immune boosting properties. These include Pau d’Arco and Calendula officinalis.