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What Causes Toenail Fungus, and How Can I Get Rid of It?

If your toenails are crusted with white, yellow, or brown patches, or are crumbly or flaky, scraping them or painting them over with regular nail polish won’t solve your problem. Most of the time, when your toenails look deformed or discolored, you have a fungal infection.

Nail fungus, or onychomycosis, can spread to your feet, too. A fungal infection between your toes or on the soles of your feet is referred to as athlete’s foot, or tinea pedis. 

At Foot and Ankle Excellence in Philadelphia, we know how embarrassing and frustrating onychomycosis can be. Our expert podiatrist, Bruni Leka, DPM, has a few tips for preventing toenail fungus, which accounts for about half of all nail diseases. 

Onychomycosis is difficult to resolve, so if you suspect you have a case of it, be sure to get it diagnosed and treated as soon as possible.

Your feet are a feast

Most cases of onychomycosis are caused by fungi called dermatophytes. Dermatophytes need the fibrous protein keratin to grow and thrive. 

Your toenails are composed of 80% hard keratin and 20% soft keratin. Keratin also makes up your skin and hair, and other mammals’ nails, quills, hooves, and horns. 

When the dermatophytes find their way to your feet, they feast on your keratin, breaking it down into smaller particles. The crumbly residue on your infected toenails is actually keratin debris. 

Keep the dermatophytes away

Onychomycosis is highly contagious and difficult to treat. Prevent a fungal infection by protecting your feet in public or shared spaces. Wear flip-flops or beach sandals in the following spaces:

Dermatophytes love warm, moist environments, so be sure to wash your feet daily and towel them dry thoroughly. Also dry your feet — including between the toes — when you get out of the pool, ocean, or shower. 

You can use foot powders on the tops of your toes, in the toe webs, and on your soles to absorb excess moisture. Always wear clean socks and change them at least daily (more often if your feet sweat a lot).

Keep your toenails trimmed short and straight. Gently file down sharp edges that could wound your nail bed, making it more susceptible to infection. Make sure you disinfect your nail clippers after each use, and only entrust your toenails to nail salons that disinfect all their tools between customers.

Other tips to reduce your risk of onychomycosis include wearing footwear that’s made of breathable, natural materials that give your toes plenty of space. Choose socks made of cotton or a wickable material that keeps them dry.

Treatment takes time

If you suspect you have onychomycosis, Dr. Leka first examines your toes and may send a scraping of your toenail to a lab. If she diagnoses onychomycosis, she treats your toenail with topical antifungals in a cream or nail-polish form. She may recommend an oral antifungal, such as terbinafine or itraconazole, too. 

If your nails are crusted with keratin debris, she scrapes it away with specialized tools. If your infection is severe, she may recommend toenail surgery to temporarily remove the infected nail and treat the nail bed topically. Clearing onychomycosis can take up to a year.

To keep your toenails and feet healthy and fungus free, call us, send us a message here on our website, or use the Request Now button online to set up a consultation.

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