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Onychomycosis -mī-ˈkō-səs

(Tinea Unguium)

By Chris G. Adigun, MD, Board-Certified Dermatologist, Dermatology & Laser Center of Chapel Hill

Onychomycosis is a fungal infection of the nails.

About 10% of people have onychomycosis, which most often affects the toenails rather than the fingernails. It is most prevalent among older people, particularly men, and people with poor circulation in the feet (peripheral arterial disease [see Caring for the Feet]), diabetes (see The Foot in Diabetes), a weakened immune system (caused by a disorder or drug), athlete's foot, or nail dystrophies. The fungus can be acquired through contact with an infected person or contact with a surface such as a bathroom floor where the fungus is present.

Onychomycosis recurs often, even after prolonged treatment.

Symptoms of Onychomycosis

Infected nails have an abnormal appearance but are not itchy or painful. In mild infections, the nails have patches of white or yellow discoloration. A chalky, white scale may slowly spread beneath the nail’s surface. In more severe infections, the nails thicken and appear deformed and discolored. They may detach from the nail bed (see Tumors of the Nails). Usually, debris from the infected nail collects under its free edge.

Diagnosis of Onychomycosis

  • A doctor's examination

  • Microscopic examination of nail debris

A doctor usually makes the diagnosis based on the appearance of the nails. To confirm the diagnosis, the doctor may need to examine a sample of the nail debris under a microscope and sometimes culture it to determine which fungus is causing the infection.

Treatment of Onychomycosis

  • Oral or topical antifungal drugs

  • Possibly laser therapy

These fungal infections are difficult to cure but do not usually cause complications, so treatment is recommended only if symptoms are particularly severe or bothersome or if the person is at risk of complications. For example, people who have diabetes or peripheral vascular disease and onychomycosis are at risk of developing potentially serious infection of the skin and soft tissues in the feet and legs (called cellulitis).

Oral antifungal drugs

If treatment is desired, the doctor usually needs to prescribe a drug taken by mouth (orally), such as itraconazole or terbinafine. These antifungal drugs are taken for a long time (about 3 months), and even after 3 months the nail may appear abnormal. However, the drugs remain bound to the nail plate (the hard part of the nail) and thus continue to be effective after use of the drug is stopped. The existing deformed or discolored nail does not improve, but newly growing nail should appear normal.

Topical treatments

Ciclopirox is an antifungal drug that is mixed in a nail lacquer but is not very effective when used without oral drugs. Efinaconazole and tavaborole are new antifungal drugs that can be applied directly on the nail. They are not as effective as oral drugs but can increase the chance of curing the infection when taken with an oral drug. They can also be taken by people who cannot take one of the oral drugs.

Nonpharmacologic treatments

Laser therapy is currently being studied. A formulation of eucalyptus oil, camphor, menthol, thymol (oil of thyme), oil of turpentine, oil of nutmeg, and oil of cedar leaf (as in over-the-counter Vicks® VapoRub®) may be effective in some people.

Foot care

To reduce the possibility of a recurrence, the nails should be kept trimmed short, the feet should be dried after bathing (including between the toes), absorbent socks should be worn, and antifungal foot powder may be used. Old shoes may contain a high concentration of fungal spores and, if possible, should not be worn.

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