Fungus of the nail, while virtually painless, can often stick out like a sore thumb. Embarrassing discoloration isn’t the only downside of fungus -- if left untreated, that fungus can spread and destroy the nail.
This week on “Take Care,” Dr. Dana Stern discusses how fungal infections are formed and how to treat them. Stern is a dermatologist, nail specialist and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City.
“Nail fungus is, simply, when the nail becomes infected by a fungus, and it can be caused by dermatophytes which are typical fungi as well as yeast or even non-dermatophyte mold,” Stern says.
There is no one organism that causes fungus so, according to Stern, accurate diagnosis is key for effective treatment.
Where does fungus come from?
The nail plate is the protective shield for the underlying nail. Nail fungus starts in the soft tissue and it’s caused by a disruption to that barrier.
Common causes of disruption are trauma or micro-trauma from exercising or stubbing your toe.
“All that you need is a little bit of separation of that nail from the underlying nail bed,” Stern says. “Consequently, there will be an open area which fungus can take habitat.”
Once that open area is affected, a person is more likely to contract a fungal infection.
But there are other criteria that make individuals susceptible to fungus.
“There are other factors including genetics, age, even sex; other co-morbid conditions such as diabetes [and] psoriasis of the nail,” Stern says.
Fungus is more common on the feet but there are cases in the hands and fingernails.
“We see it on the nail when someone has a really severe case of onychomycosis, which is a fungal infection of the toenail,” Stern says. “Or they have what’s called tinea pedis which is the medical term for athlete’s foot. So, by simply touching your feet if they’re infected, repetitively, you can, theoretically, spread it to your hands and your fingernails.”
The most effective way to treat fungus is by receiving an accurate diagnosis, and the best way to get the proper diagnosis is by visiting a dermatologist.
“In our society, a lot of people seek care for nail issues in their local nail salons,” Stern says. “Although nail technicians can do wonders for cosmetically improving and enhancing nails, they’re really not trained to make these kinds of diagnoses.”