When you think of fungus in the environment, you may picture little mushroom caps in your yard, big bulbs growing on fallen trees, or chopped portabellas on your sandwich or salad. While the big, visible, and occasionally edible varieties of fungus are common, they are certainly not the only types. Microscopic organisms are everywhere. Some can even infect the feet. Toenail fungus is an unfortunately common foot infection.
What Is Toenail Fungus
Toenail fungus is an infection festering underneath your nails that damages the hard keratin. Typically the problem is caused by a dermatophyte fungus, though sometimes yeast or mold can create similar issues. The pathogen often gets under your nail through small cuts or separations between your nail and the nail bed. Once it’s under your nail, it begins breaking down the keratin. Your nails become thickened, brittle, dull, discolored, ragged, and distorted. Sometimes the nail separates from the nail bed. You may notice an unpleasant odor as well. Usually the condition is painless, though unsightly, but as the problem creates more damage, it can become quite uncomfortable. It’s contagious and hard to eliminate, too.
What Causes Toenail Fungus
Because the microorganism that causes the infection is in the environment, you can pick it up in many different places. The pathogen particularly thrives and spreads in warm, damp atmospheres. Pools, saunas, public bathrooms, and locker rooms are all common breeding grounds for the fungus. Walking barefoot in these areas increases your risk for exposure and infection. However, direct contact with the footwear or feet of an infected person may pass on the toenail fungus as well.
You contract the problem when your feet provide a favorable environment for the pathogen to breed and grow. Warm, sweaty lower limbs—particularly if they’re kept in shoes with little or no air circulation—are perfect for the fungus. The sweat traps the organisms in your socks and shoes as well, where they continue to grow and consistently re-expose your toenails to the condition.
The infection does not improve on its own. In fact, it will get worse if you do not take care of it. You may find the microorganisms spreading to other nails or your skin, causing athlete’s foot. Fungal nails also weaken your body’s defenses against bacteria, opening your toes to additional infections. This is an especially serious risk for people with diabetes, who already have impaired and vulnerable immune systems. To eliminate the problem, you have to invest time and treatment in your feet.
How You Diagnose It
Dr. Darren Silvester and our Next Step Foot & Ankle Clinic will carefully examine your toenails to identify the exact cause of the changes. We may scrape a sample of keratin off the top of a nail to perform tests and confirm which microorganisms are causing the problem. Then we can help you begin treatments to manage your condition. Fortunately, most successful therapies for fungal nails are conservative.
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Toenail fungus is an uncomfortable, unsightly infection. You don’t have to resign yourself to hiding your digits in your shoes, though. You can do something about the condition. Let Dr. Darren Silvester and the Next Step Foot & Ankle Clinic team help you. Just call (830) 569-3338 or use the web request form to reach us for an appointment.