How do you know if you have one?

One day you notice that the nails on your right foot seem to be thicker and discolored than they usually are. You go to the doctor, and he tells you that you might have a fungal infection. How did this happen? What do you need to do to get rid of it? Is there a way to prevent it from appearing on your other nails?


Fungal nail infections (or onychomycosis) can result from several different fungal organisms, but the most common cause is the fungus called dermatophyte. It’s important to note that some yeast and molds can cause nail infections too. Often, a toenail fungal infection starts as athlete’s foot. Infections can travel from one nail to another but are less likely to travel from person to person.

Typically, a fungal infection starts as a white or yellow spot under the tip of your fingernail or toenail. They’re more likely to affect toenails. As the infection travels deeper, the nail will discolor, thicken, and crumble at the edge. The shape of the nail will usually be distorted and might have a slightly foul smell.

Fungal nail infections can happen at any age. However, they’re more likely to occur in older adults because your nails become brittle and dry as you age. This results in cracks that allow fungi to enter. Reduced blood circulation and weakened immune system may play a role. Some other things that can increase your chances of having a fungal nail infection are sweating heavily, having a history of athlete’s feet, walking barefoot in damp communal areas (ex. swimming pools, gyms, and shower rooms), having a minor skin or nail injury, having specific conditions (ex. psoriasis), or having diabetes. Severe cases can be painful and cause permanent damage to your nails.


Unfortunately, fungal nail infections can be challenging to treat. Most often, mild cases can be taken care of at home. There are several over-the-counter antifungal nail creams and ointments. If you notice white markings on the surfaces of the nails, file them off, soak your nails in water, dry them, and apply the medicated cream or lotion. By trimming and thinning your nails, it’ll help to reduce pain by decreasing the pressure on your nails. If you do this before applying an antifungal medicine, it can reach deeper layers of the nail. Sometimes, it helps to soften your nails before trimming and filing with urea-containing creams. If you have poor blood flow to your feet and shouldn’t be trimming your nails, see a healthcare provider regularly to have them do it.

It can take months to see results because fungal infections can be challenging to treat. Also, repeat infections are common. If none of the at-home treatments work, talk to your doctor about prescription medication. Some antifungal medicines are applied directly to the nail, and others are taken by mouth. Pills are usually preferred because they can get rid of the infection quicker. Some options are terbinafine and itraconazole. They must be taken for 6 – 12 weeks. These help to grow new nail tissue that isn’t infected. It can take four months or longer to see the results. One medicine that’s applied to the nail is a medicated nail polish called ciclopirox. You put it on once a day, and after seven days, you wipe off the layers and start fresh. You’ll probably need to apply it for at least a year. Your doctor might also prescribe a medicated nail cream that you rub into your nails after soaking them. Your doctor may recommend surgically removing the nail so the medicine can be applied directly to the infection underneath. If your condition doesn’t respond to any treatment, you might need your nail removed permanently.


There are several things you can do to prevent a fungal nail infection. An essential step is to wash your hands and feet regularly, especially if you have an infected nail. Also, moisturize your nails after washing. When trimming your nails, make sure they’re straight across with smooth edges. Use a file to do this and thin thickened areas. Make sure to disinfect your nail clippers after each use. It’s a good idea to wear sweat-absorbing socks or change your socks throughout the day. In addition, choose shoes made of materials that breathe and discard old shoes or treat them with disinfectants or antifungal powders. When in pool areas and locker rooms, wear footwear. If you go to a nail salon, choose one that uses sterilized manicure tools for each customer. You might need to stop using nail polish and artificial nails.

The best way to not have to deal with a fungal nail infection is to prevent one. If you have any questions or concerns about fungal nail infections, please speak with your doctor. If you would like more information, please visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s fungal nail infection page at