Onychomycosis is the most common of all diseases of the nails in adults. In North America, the incidence falls roughly between 2–13%. The incidence of onychomycosis is also greater in older adults, and up to 90% of the elderly may be affected. Men are more commonly infected than women.
Individuals who are especially susceptible include those with chronic diseases such as diabetes and circulatory problems and those with diseases that suppress the immune system. Other risk factors include a family history, previous trauma to the nails, warm climate, occlusive or tight footwear.
Causes and symptoms
Onychomycosis is caused by three types of fungi, called dermatophytes, yeasts, and nondermatophyte molds. Fungi are simple parasitic plant organisms that don't need sunlight to grow. Toenails are especially susceptible because fungi prefer dark damp places. Swimming pools, locker rooms, and showers typically harbor fungi. Chronic diseases such as diabetes, problems with the circulatory system, or immune deficiency disease are risk factors. A history of athlete's foot and excess perspiration are also risk factors.
Onychomycosis can be present for years without causing pain or disturbing symptoms. Typically, the nail becomes thicker and changes to a yellowish-brown. Foul smelling debris may collect under the nail. The infection can spread to the surrounding nails and even the skin.
To make a diagnosis of onychomycosis, the clinician must collect a specimen of the nail in which infection is suspected. A clipping is taken from the nail plate, and a sample of the debris from underneath the nail bed is also taken, usually with a sharp curette. Debris from the nail surface may also be taken. These will be sent for microscopic analysis to a laboratory, as well as cultured to determine what types of fungus are growing there.
Onychomycosis is very difficult and sometimes impossible to treat, and therapy is often long-term. Therapy consists of topical treatments that are applied directly to the nails, as well as two systemic drugs, griseofulvin and ketoconazole. Topical therapy is reserved for only the mildest cases. The use of griseofulvin and ketoconazole is problematic, and there are typically high relapse rates of 50–85%. In addition, treatment must be continued for a
In the past few years, newer oral antifungal agents have been developed, and include itraconazole (Sporanox), terbinafine (Lamisil), and fluconazole (Diflucan). These agents, when taken orally for as little as 12 weeks, bring about better cure rates and fewer side effects than either griseofulvin or ketoconazole. The most common side effect is stomach upset. Patients taking oral antifungal therapy must have a complete blood count and liver enzyme workup every four to six weeks. Terbinafine in particular has markedly less toxicity to the liver, one of the more severe side effects of the older agents, griseofulvin and ketoconazole.
Treatment should be continued until microscopic exam or culture shows no more fungal infection. Nails may, however, continue to look damaged even after a clinical cure is achieved. Nails may take up to a full year to return to normal. If the nail growth slows or stops, additional doses of antifungal therapy should be taken.
Nail debridement is another treatment option, but it is considered by many to be primitive compared with topical or systemic treatment. Clinicians perform nail debridement in their offices. The nail is cut and then thinned using surgical tools or chemicals, and then the loose debris under the nail is removed. The procedure is painless, and often improves the appearance of the nails immediately. In addition, it helps whatever medication being used to penetrate the newly thinned nail. Patients with very thickened nails will sometimes undergo chemical removal of a nail. A combination of oral, topical, and surgical removal can increase the chances of curing the infection.
For controlling onychomycosis, as opposed to curing it, some experts advocate using Lotrimin cream, available over the counter. The cream should be thoroughly rubbed into the nail daily in order to control the infection.
In general, nutrition may also play a role in promoting good nail health and thus preventing nail disease. Adequate protein and minerals, in the form of nuts, seeds, whole grains, legumes, fresh vegetables, and fish, should be consumed. Sugars, alcohol, and caffeine should be avoided. Certain supplements may also be beneficial, including vitamin A (10,000 IU per day), zinc (15–30 mg per day), iron (ferrous glycinate 100 mg per day, vitamin B12 (1,000 mcg per day), and essential fatty acids in the form of flax, borage, or evening primrose oil (1,000–1,5000 mg twice daily).
Herbal remedies may also relieve some of the symptoms of onychomycosis. A combination of coneflower, oregano, spilanthes, usnea, Oregon grape root, and myrrh can be used as a tincture (20 drops four times daily).
Undiluted grapefruit seed extract and tea tree oil are also said to be beneficial when applied topically to the infected nails.
Onychomycosis is typically quite difficult to cure completely. Even if a clinical cure is achieved after long therapy with either topical or oral drugs, normal regrowth takes four to six months in the fingernails, and eight to 12 months in the toenails, which grow more slowly. Relapse is common, and often, the nail or nail bed is permanently damaged. For toenails infected with onychomycosis, terbinafine seems to offer the highest cure rate (35–50%). Itraconazole cure rates typically range from 25–40%, and those with fluconazole, which was recently approved in the United States, have not been documented by long-term trials
Keeping the feet clean and dry, and washing with soap and water and drying thoroughly are important preventive steps to take to prevent onychomycosis. Other preventive measures include keeping the nails cut short and wearing shower shoes whenever walking or showering in public places. Daily changes of shoes, socks, or hosiery are also helpful. Excessively tight hose or shoes promote moisture, which in turn, provides a wonderful environment for onychomycotic infections. To prevent this, individuals should wear only socks made of synthetic fibers, which can absorb moisture more quickly than those made of cotton or wools. Manicure and pedicure tools should be disinfected after each use. Finally, nail polish should not be applied to nails that are infected, as this causes the water or moisture that collects under the surface of the nail to not evaporate and be trapped.
Harrell T. K., et al. "Onychomycosis: Improved Cure Rates with Itraconazole and Terbinafine." Journal of the American Board of Family Practitioners (July-August 2001):268-73.
Scher Robert K. "Novel Treatment Strategies for Superficial Mycoses." Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology (1999).
American Academy of Dermatology. 930 N. Meacham Road, PO Box 4014, Schaumburg, IL 60168-4014. (847) 330-0230. Fax:(847) 330-0050. <http://www.aad.org>.
Curette—Spoon-shaped instrument for removing debris, growths, or infected nail matter.
Dermatophytes, yeasts, and nondermatophyte molds—Three types of fungi responsible for fungal infections of the nails.