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Is Nail Fungus Contagious?

It's not highly contagious, but nail fungus gets around

Dr. Kline & Green Team
4 December 2019
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Fungal nail infection is not highly contagious, but once it finds its way to the nail bed of your fingers or toes, patience and persistence are required to get rid of it, and it often comes back. Though transmission of fungal infection between people is certainly possible, nail fungus is so common that its occurrence even among family members is probably coincidence.

You’re most likely to pick up athlete’s foot and toenail fungus in public areas with lots of foot traffic. Moist areas hospitable to fungi include swimming pool decks, public showers, and the locker room at your gym. If you walk barefoot in an area where someone infected with onychomycosis (toenail fungus) or tinea pedis (athlete’s foot) has walked barefoot before you, you’ll probably catch that infection. Wear shower shoes or flip-flops!

Risk factors open the door to fingernail and toenail fungi

If diabetes is present, poor circulation to feet and hands and a weakened immune system require that you consult a doctor at the first sign of fungal infection. Know that If you’ve ever had athlete’s foot, you’re already at higher risk of toenail infection. Other health problems you have or medications you’re taking will help determine which antifungal treatment your doctor prescribes. Your physician may immediately refer you to a DPM (podiatrist) or dermatologist for treatment.

Tinea unguium is a common fungal infection of toenails, but may also affect fingernails. Particularly susceptible to this are men, older adults, diabetics, those with peripheral vascular disease, or anyone with a weakened immune system. Bleeding or bruising under the nail (subungual hematoma) caused by injury may allow fungi and bacteria onto the nail bed and cause a fungal or bacterial infection. Treatable fungal infection and ringworm are also caused by dermatophytes, the most common pathogenic fungi to grow on skin, mucous membranes, hair, and nails. Cellulitis may erupt in severe cases of untreated foot fungus and skin infection. A potentially serious bacterial infection, cellulitis can enter the bloodstream and, unchecked, become life-threatening.

Identifying and treating a fingernail fungus

Fungal nail infection can develop in people at any age, but it’s more common in older adults. Fingernail fungus is much easier to treat than toenail fungus, so you may want to try home remedies and over-the-counter treatments to get rid of it. There are several good antifungal nail creams, lotions, ointments, and antifungal soaps on the market.

White spots or streaks on the surface of the fingernail are often a sign of fungal infection. To treat this condition, gently file off the spots, soak your nails in water and dry them thoroughly, then massage a medicated cream or lotion into your fingernails and hands 1 or 2 times per day for about 12 weeks. Keep in mind that a fingernail fungus will not go away on its own. Untreated, a fungal infection will spread and may cause serious health problems if allowed to enter the bloodstream and lymph nodes, and it may destroy the nail. Fingernails usually grow out completely in 4 to 6 months, and the nail plate itself will grow out in 9 months. While you’re waiting (and treating the fungus), you can still visit your nail salon for a manicure. Stay away from nail polish, nail lacquer, and, especially acrylic and gel nails, though. Give your fingernails some breathing time to heal and grow out without sealing an infection into the cuticles and nail bed. Your salon may request that you bring your own nail clippers, trimmers, and files, which will give you a chance to disinfect all tools when you get home.

Medications for fingernail fungus

  • Ciclopirox (Ciclodan, Penlac, Loprox)
  • Efinaconazole (Jublia)
  • Naftifine (Naftifin)
  • Tavaborole (Kerydin)
  • Terbinafine (Lamisil)
  • Fluconazole (Diflucan)

If your fungal infection is severe, your doctor may prescribe an oral antifungal treatment that may require you to take it for at least 12 weeks. Terbinafine (Lamisil) and itraconazole (Sporanox) are among the most effective at producing healthy new nail growth. Your doctor can also monitor you for any side effects.

Identifying and treating a toenail fungus

Onychomycosis is a stubborn type of fungus with some obvious symptoms and treatment requires patience and strict attention to dosage and procedures. This toenail fungal infection will exhibit a yellowish or brownish nail discoloration; crumbles at the top of the nail; brittle and misshapen nails, and an unpleasant odor. You’ll notice some or all of these symptoms.

You don’t have to stay away from the nail salon if you have onychomycosis (or a fingernail fungus). It’s more common than most people think. As a courtesy, tell the salon when you make your appointment. They’ll probably appreciate the heads-up and will be ready to promptly disinfect the tools they use for your pedicure. A salon may even ask that your bring your own nail grooming kit, with nail clippers, nail trimmer, and files. Be sure to wash and dry them thoroughly afterward.

Medications and something new for treatment of onychomycosis

  • Itraconazole
  • Terbinafine (Lamisil)
  • Fuconazole
  • Ciclopirox (Ciclodan, Penlac, Loprox)
  • Laser treatment (something new!)

Home remedies for toenail fungus

There are some good quality antifungal powders, creams, lotions, and sprays you can buy over-the-counter to deal with onychomycosis, and you might want to try them if your infection is mild and not too uncomfortable. To treat a fungal infection you’ll have to apply these products for several months or at least a year. Remember, it takes that long for a new nail to grow in completely. If the infection fails to respond, or if it worsens, see your doctor, who may refer you to a DPM (podiatrist) or dermatologist.

Among many home remedies available, tea tree oil is a favorite. It has excellent antifungal properties and, when mixed with a carrier oil and a selected herb or two, it’s easy to use and has a pleasant smell. You’ll need to apply it 3 or 4 times a day, and it’s also effective at preventing reinfection.

Other remedies include Vicks Vaporub for topical application; vinegar (acetic acid), which also has antifungal properites; and you can add Lysol to your wash to kill athlete’s foot fungus. Soak your feet in baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) or a small amount of diluted bleach. Both are antifungal agents, and hydrogen peroxide kills fungus and bacteria on the surface of the foot. For both treatment and prevention, use an antibacterial spray in shoes, boots, and on sandals, and wash all socks in hot water with bleach or Lysol to kill fungal spores. Wash your feet thoroughly every day and dry them carefully, especially between the toes.

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