Fighting Fungal Toenail Infections

The idea of a fungus growing on your body sounds a little like science fiction. If you have yellowed, crumbling toenails, you may have a fungal infection.

People with diabetes or trouble with circulation are especially at risk because such a fungus could cause a foot infection. See your doctor right away if this is the case.

Anyone can get a fungal infection, though, and it is fairly common – about 15 percent of people have it; nearly half of those cases occur in people 70 years and older.

How you get it

Fungi are everywhere – floors, carpeting, dirt. Generally, anywhere that’s dark, dank and wet can harbor fungi, which are related to molds and mildew. A fungus can nestle under your toenails, on your feet or even under your fingernails, but doesn’t invade your body.

Usually, the fungus lives under one toe, but it can spread to other toes. Most fungal infections occur in the big toe or little toe. This kind of fungus is different from the one that causes athlete’s foot, which lives on the skin of your foot.

Your chances for fungal infection increase when you use public showers (fungi love these), wear tight-fitting shoes or don’t dry well between your toes. Tight-fitting shoes can traumatize the toe, allowing an infection to take hold.


Telltale signs include thick, yellow or discolored nails. They may eventually become hard to cut with toenail clippers. Your toenail may start to separate from your nail bed and even begin to crumble. Some people have pain. The infection can even lead to abscesses (collections of pus) under the nail, which can hurt when you wear shoes.

Toenail infections are hard to treat, even with your doctor’s help. If you see a change in your nail’s color, see a doctor. If you put off seeing the doctor, hoping the problem will clear up on its own, you may risk worsening the infection. This will add months to your treatment time.


Depending on how severe your infection is, your doctor may prescribe medication. (Check with your insurance company to see if this medication is covered.) Troubling side effects include liver damage and interaction with other medications, including those that lower cholesterol. Your doctor will monitor your liver throughout treatment, which can last at least several months.

If your condition is bad enough, your doctor may remove the toenail.

Here’s how to prevent toenail fungal infections:

Wear rubber shoes in public showers.

Wash your feet every day and dry between your toes.

Wear well-fitting shoes that don’t crush your toes.

Don’t wear wet shoes or socks.

Keep toenails trimmed straight across.

Dry your feet after any activity (such as running) that makes your feet sweat.

Don’t wear wet socks or shoes. You may want to keep an extra pair of socks at work or in your car.