Know Your Enemy: What is Toenail Fungus?

May 4, 2021

There is one thing you probably already know about toenail fungus: it shouldn’t be under your toenails to begin with!

But in addition to that pure nugget of truth, there is plenty more one can learn about the organisms that cause fungal toenails. And the more you know about the fungus, the better you can understand how infections are treated, or how to outright avoid them in the first place.

We have already written a blog post about preventing toenail fungus, so please feel free to head over there if you’re looking for those tips right away. But come back here if you want a fuller story as to what is going on.

So What Actually Is Toenail Fungus?

The organisms that cause the thickened, brittle, discolored, misshapen mess in your toenails are indeed actual fungi – although sometimes the perpetrators might be classified as yeasts or molds, too.

Most of these organisms belong to a category called dermatophytes. Different breeds of dermatophytes can cause various infections in your skin and nails, and they’re not limited to just your feet. Ringworm, jock itch, and athlete’s foot (as mentioned in our previous blog) are all caused by dermatophytes.

Anytime you see “tinea” in the name of a condition, that is most often referring to a dermatophyte infection of the skin. The medical name for athlete’s foot, for example, is tinea pedis. When it comes to a fungal nail infection, however, the medical name is “onychomycosis.”

close up of toenail fungus

Why Do Dermatophytes Infect the Nails?

Organisms such as the ones that cause fungal toenails typically require warmth and moisture to survive. The toes tend to provide these elements well, especially when you keep your feet in sweaty shoes all day.

However, there is another thing that dermatophytes need to thrive: keratin. This is a type of fibrous protein that can be found throughout the body, but is a key structural component of nails, skin, and hair. Beyond humans, you can also find it in the horns, hooves, and feathers of our animal friends.

Keratin is required by dermatophytes for growth, and our toenails are unfortunately a never-ending buffet for them. 

To further complicate the matter, the very tough, protective properties of keratin in your toenails also helps protect the fungus from outside influences. It’s like being able to build a bunker out of your own food.

How Does Toenail Fungus Invade?

The nails and skin do a relatively good job of keeping unwanted visitors out, but they can’t always be perfect at the job.

If there is a crack or split in the nail or the skin surrounding it – even a small one – that can give fungus enough of an opportunity to get in and grab a foothold. And once it’s under the nail, you already know how difficult it becomes to get rid of it.

If an infection is already elsewhere on the skin – such as athlete’s foot – the potential exists for the organisms causing trouble there to spread to the nails. In other words, having athlete’s foot (or any other dermatophyte-based skin or nail infection elsewhere on the body) means a higher risk of fungal toenails. Take precautions!

Who is at Higher Risk for Toenail Fungus?

Although nobody is immune from a fungal toenail infection, certain people can have increased risk of developing the condition. This includes anyone who:

  • Had a recent nail injury, or who recently had surgery conducted on their nails
  • Has a weakened immune system
  • Lives with diabetes
  • Has poor circulation, especially in their lower legs and feet
  • Sweats profusely through their feet
  • Works regularly in wet and damp environments, or has spent a lot of time recently in water

Ultimately, anything that interferes with the body’s natural protections or makes for a more appealing environment for dermatophytes will increase your fungal toenails risk.

When Can You Tell You Have Fungal Toenails?

This is an important question.

The sooner that a fungal infection is detected and treatment begins, the easier and faster it is to get rid of the fungus.

One of the big problems we tend to see is that people don’t come in until their nails have reached that familiar yellowish, brittle, distorted, thickened state. By this point, however, the fungus has had a long time to establish itself – from many months to years.

A fungal infection does not immediately result in the plain-as-day symptoms above. Instead, it typically begins as white or off-white marks and spots on the nail. It’s easy to pass these off as the result of common bumps or nicks to the nail. But if they don’t go away – and in fact start to grow or change – it’s time to give us a call. Hitting the fungus with laser treatment or other methods at this time is ideal.

Get the Fungal Nail Help You Need

If you ever have concerns about what’s on your nails, please don’t hesitate to give us a call. We’ll be happy to provide you with solid advice.

But no matter how minor (or severe) your case may be at this moment, it is still worth coming to see us. Even longtime infections can see benefits from laser treatment and other treatment options, and we will recommend to you the best route toward achieving clear nails again.

Call either of our offices to schedule an appointment. We’ll be happy to hear from you.

  • Princeton – (609) 924-8333
  • Roselle Park – (908) 687-5757

Princeton Office