Just the words ‘fungal nail infections’ are enough to make us shudder, but believe it or not, they are far more common than you might think. In fact, the British Association of Dermatologists (BAD) suggest that 1 in 4 people can be affected by fungal infections of the toenails at any given time, and while fungal fingernail infections are far less common, they do happen. So, while it’s nothing to be embarrassed about, it can be uncomfortable and should be treated as soon as possible.
What are the symptoms of fungal nail infection?
According to the BAD, there aren’t usually any symptoms to begin with, which can make fungal toenail infections difficult to spot at first.
“The first symptoms to look out include nails that are becoming brittle, crumbly, unusually thick and/ or discoloured,” says podiatrist Dina Gohil, foot expert at Excilor. “There may also, on occasion, be an odour,” she adds.
You may also noticed the infected nail damaging your socks, tights or adjacent skin, and skin around the nail may also become infected and crack, blister or be itchy.
The NHS also notes that, because of how brittle the nail can become, pieces of your toenail may break off, and the whole nail can even lift off, causing pain and swelling in the surrounding skin.
The nails most commonly affected by fungal infections are those on the big and little toes.
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What causes fungal nail infections?
“Toenails that are exposed to damp, sweaty, warm environments, and secondary infections can occur if the nails have been traumatised, making them more susceptible to getting fungal infections,” explains Dina.
So, if you wear trainers for long periods of time and have hot, sweaty feet, this is the perfect environment for fungi to grow. Similarly, if you’re barefoot in damp communal areas, such as gym showers or swimming pools.
“Gel pedicures can also put you at great risk of a fungal toenail infection, particularly if left for extended periods of time,” adds Dina. “Firstly, the application of the gel can cause damage to your nails and if the space between the gel and nail becomes exposed and open, then fungus can form resulting to a fungal nail infection.”
Why has there been a surge in cases lately?
Considering the above causes, the reopening of nail salons and gyms could be causing a spike in fungal nail infections.
“Since the pandemic, I have seen a rise in cases, but the exact cause is hard to pinpoint,” says Dina. “Though I suspect during lockdown and with many of us still working from home, most people wouldn’t be wearing their normal shoes and may have become more aware of their feet, perhaps noticing a fungal infection from before that they’d never had treated.”
How can I treat a fungal nail infection?
A pharmacist will be able to give you over-the-counter anti-fungal treatments which usually help the infection clear up at home.
Speak to a podiatrist or your GP if the infection is severe and at-home remedies haven’t worked, or if it’s spreading to other nails. Your GP may take a sample of your nail to have it tested and prescribe anti-fungal tablets. Severely infected nails sometimes need to be removed under local anaesthetic.
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How can I prevent it from happening in the first place?
“Maintaining excellent foot hygiene is key!,” says Dina. “If you get gels or acrylics on your nails, then have them removed properly and avoid leaving them on for longer than 3 weeks. Wear shoes that are breathable and moisture-wicking. Don’t forget to wash in between your toes and dry them thoroughly.”
You should also treat athlete’s foot as soon as possible to avoid it spreading to nails, make sure you’re wearing clean socks every day and putting on flip-flops to walk around communal areas like gym showers or pools, and don’t share towels or nail clippers/ scissors.