Onychomycosis is fungal infection of the nail plate, nail bed, or both. The nails typically are deformed and discolored white or yellow. Diagnosis is by appearance, wet mount, culture, PCR, or a combination. Treatment, when indicated, is with selective use of oral terbinafine or itraconazole.
About 10% (range 2 to 14%) of the population has onychomycosis. Risk factors include
Toenails are 10 times more commonly infected than fingernails. About 60 to 80% of cases are caused by dermatophytes (eg, Trichophyton rubrum); dermatophyte infection of the nails is called tinea unguium. Many of the remaining cases are caused by nondermatophyte molds (eg, Aspergillus, Scopulariopsis, Fusarium). Immunocompromised patients and those with chronic mucocutaneous candidiasis may have candidal onychomycosis (which is more common on the fingers). Subclinical onychomycosis can also occur in patients with recurrent tinea pedis. Onychomycosis may predispose patients to lower extremity cellulitis.
Symptoms and Signs
Nails have asymptomatic patches of white or yellow discoloration and deformity. There are 3 characteristic manifestations:
Onychomycosis is suspected by appearance; predictive clinical features include involvement of the 3rd or 5th toenail, involvement of the 1st and 5th toenails on the same foot, and unilateral nail deformity. Subclinical onychomycosis should be considered in patients with recurrent tinea pedis. Differentiation from psoriasis or lichen planus is important, because the therapies differ, so diagnosis is typically confirmed by microscopic examination and culture of scrapings. Scrapings are taken from the most proximal position that can be accessed on the affected nail and are examined for hyphae on potassium hydroxide wet mount and cultured. Obtaining an adequate sample of nail can be difficult because the distal subungual debris, which is easy to sample, often does not contain living fungus. Therefore, removing the distal portion of the nail with clippers before sampling or using a small curette to reach more proximally beneath the nail increases the yield. PCR can also be done on nail clippings if cultures are negative and the cost of finding a definitive diagnosis is warranted.
Onychomycosis is not always treated because many cases are asymptomatic or mild and unlikely to cause complications, and the oral drugs that are the most effective treatments can potentially cause hepatotoxicity and serious drug interactions. Some proposed indications for treatment include the following:
Treatment is oral terbinafine or itraconazole. Terbinafine 250 mg once/day for 12 wk (6 wk for fingernail) or itraconazole 200 mg bid 1 wk/mo for 3 mo is used and achieves a cure rate of 60 to 75%, but the recurrence rate is estimated to be as high as 10 to 50%. It is not necessary to treat until all abnormal nail is gone because these drugs remain bound to the nail plate and continue to be effective after oral administration has ceased. The affected nail will not revert to normal; however, newly growing nail will appear normal. Topical antifungal nail lacquer containing ciclopirox 8% or amorolfine 5% (not available in the US) is rarely effective as primary treatment but can improve cure rate when used as an adjunct with oral drugs, particularly in resistant infections.
To limit relapse, the patient should trim nails short, dry feet after bathing, wear absorbent socks, and use antifungal foot powder. Old shoes may harbor a high density of spores and, if possible, should not be worn.
Last full review/revision October 2009 by Wingfield E. Rehmus, MD, MPH