Nail fungus — known by the scientific name of onychomycosis — is a fungal infection of the nail. It can occur on the toenail or fingernail but is most common on the toes. It causes whitening and yellowing of the nail in the early stages. Later on, it may cause the nail to thicken and crumble.
Several organisms cause toenail fungus. The most common one is a dermatophyte — a specific type of fungus that feeds on keratin, a protein that is found plentifully in nails. However, yeast or mold can also cause toenail fungal infections.
You may be at higher risk for toenail fungus if you:
- Sweat a lot from your feet
- Have athlete's foot
- Walk barefoot in communal showers or swimming pools
- Have a nail injury
- Have a skin injury near your nails
- Have diabetes
- Have poor circulation
- Have a weakened immune system
Toenail fungus can start as a case of athlete's foot, and then spread to the nails. People who are older are at higher risk. As you age, circulation gets worse, leading to more brittle toenails. They can crack, allowing the fungus to grow. As you age, your nails have also had more fungus exposure and grow more slowly.
This type of fungal infection is usually minor. The main issue people have with it is the way infected toenails look. It may cause embarrassment to show the toenails or wear sandals.
Remedies and Treatments for Toenail Fungus
Antifungal remedies help to stop the growth of the fungus. Over-the-counter options do not claim to cure toenail fungus, but they can help to improve the look of the affected nail. These products do not work as well as prescription medications. To cure toenail fungus, a remedy has to penetrate the nail and nail bed. Most over-the-counter remedies for nail fungus are topical and do not penetrate deeply enough.
Trim, Buff, and Thin the Affected Nail
Keeping your nails trim, buffed, and clean helps to prevent the spread of the fungus to other nails. Additionally, buffing the nail can allow topical antifungals to penetrate more deeply. Make sure to wash your hands promptly after touching the affected nail, especially before touching other nails.
Vicks VapoRub is a product marketed for people with coughs. However, it may also be effective against toenail fungus. One small study showed that after applying it topically each day for 48 weeks, 27.8% of participants fully cured their nail fungus — and 55.6% of participants saw partial improvement. However, more study is needed.
Tea Tree Oil
Tea tree oil comes from the Australian tea tree. It is an essential oil traditionally used as an antibacterial and antifungal treatment. Early research shows that it may help with nail fungus when used topically. However, more research is needed. If you do use tea tree oil for toenail fungus, only use it topically.
If ingested, tea tree oil is toxic and can lead to:
- Loss of muscle control
- Breathing problems
When to See a Doctor
You should see a doctor if your nail fungus is distressing to you, or if your symptoms worsen over time.
People who have diabetes or a suppressed immune system should address minor cases of toenail fungus right away. In these situations, nail fungus can lead to more serious health issues like cellulitis or systemic fungal infection.
Your doctor may recommend medicated nail polish or cream. These products may take up to a year to work.
The most effective solution for the majority of people is a prescription oral antifungal that you take for six to 12 weeks. However, these medications may affect your liver, so you need to have blood tests periodically while you are on them. They are not recommended for people who already have certain health issues, like liver disease.
If you have a severe and stubborn fungal nail infection, your doctor may recommend surgical removal of the toenail.