Toenail Fungus: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Toenail fungus may be among the worst in the unsightly infections, causing your toenail to change color or crumble. Therefore,  it is important to know what are the causes, how to identify it, and which remedies are most effective.

What is Toenail Fungus?

Toenail fungus is a broad categorization of any fungus that embeds itself beneath the toenail. Technically known as onychomycosis, toenail fungus tends to be caused by two different dermatophytes – fungi that require keratin for growth. Keratin is conveniently found in your toenails, which makes them an ideal location for infection. While many different types of fungi are present on the body at all times, when the conditions are right for them to grow out of control, you have an infection on your hands.

In the case of toenail fungus, the condition will likely start with a small white or yellow dot beneath your toenail. If not addressed, and provided with good conditions for growth, that small dot will grow and begin to weaken the nail, followed by the rest of the symptoms.

While toenail fungus is not inherently dangerous, it can be an unsightly and uncomfortable condition, while also opening up your body to other infections, if the toenail becomes cracked and broken into an open wound. Fortunately, since this condition is so common, a considerable amount of research on signs, symptoms, causes, risk factors and treatments has been conducted.

Symptoms of Toenail Fungus

The most common symptoms of toenail fungus include discoloration of the nail in yellow and white streaks, as well as physical damage to the nail, such as crumbling at the edges of the nail, or pits forming in the surface of the toenail. Yellow spots may also appear at the base of the nail, near the nail bed, and in the most severe cases, the toenail will fall off completely. Your nail will also likely lose its shine and take on a dullness, and may also become distorted or bent out of shape, as though it is growing at the wrong angle.

If you see scaling under the nail, or visible cracks/pits in the nail, there is also a good chance that other debris will get beneath the nail, resulting in a brown color, a dirtiness that is difficult to clean off. There will typically be an odor to the toenail when it is infected, as is true with other types of infections on the skin. The toenail will likely become thicker and more brittle as the infection spreads.

These symptoms are not unique to toenail fungus, however, so to get an accurate diagnosis, it is necessary to visit your doctor for a formal examination. At that point, you can discuss treatment options specific to your condition.

Causes of Toenail Fungus

Toenail fungus is caused at the root by dermatophytes, which are fungi that require keratin to survive and thrive. However, there are a number of other causes and risk factors for toenail fungus, such as excessive dampness or perspiration, physical exertion, wearing closed-toed shoes, diabetes, old age, injuries to the nail, poor circulation, weakened immune system and exposure to public water.

Damp Environment: Fungal infections thrive in areas that are damp or perpetually moist, which is why showers and locker rooms are the perfect places to catch one of these nasty infections. Avoid using other people’s towels and wear shower shoes in public locker rooms whenever possible.

Physical Exertion: If you are an athlete, your physical activity likely causes an excessive amount of perspiration in your shoes and socks. If you wear old socks or shoes, or leave them on for too long following a workout, the conditions are ripe for a toenail fungus infection.

Shoes Choice: Always wearing closed-toed shoes can promote a constant environment where this fungi can thrive. Let your toes breathe a bit and ensure that you regularly wash between your toes and under the edge of your toenails when you shower.

Age: As we age, our nails naturally become more brittle and susceptible to infection, combined with a decrease in personal hygiene and a preference for warmer temperatures. Furthermore, the immune system becomes weaker as we age, making the natural response to infections less powerful.

Diabetes: One of the major symptoms if diabetes is a decrease in circulation, particularly to the extremities, like the toes. Where there is a lack of resources to repair or heal infections, such as in the toes, infections can take hold much more easily.

Circulation: There are other reasons why your circulatory system may struggle to deliver the necessary nutrients to your toes and nail beds. If you are overweight, have high blood pressure, wear constricting socks or take certain medications, your circulation may be low, leaving you vulnerable to toenail fungus.

Public Pools: Swimming in public pools opens your toes up to a veritable cesspool of potential fungi, so if you have an infection or are prone to developing them, avoid these types of public spaces.

Immune System Issues: A weakened immune system can happen due to illness, autoimmune disease, nutrient deficiency and many other factors, leaving your entire system more vulnerable to infection.

Injuries: If your toenail has been damaged in an injury or if your nail bed is exposed for any other reason, your risk for developing toenail fungus increases considerably.

Treatments for Toenail Fungus

When it comes to treatment of toenail fungus, a few tests are often conducted first. After inspecting the toenail fungus, a doctor may remove some of the toenail and run a fungal culture to identify the strain. Furthermore, a potassium hydroxide preparation can identify whether the infection is being caused by a fungus. Following the proper identification of the infections, some of the best options are anti-fungal creams, toenail removal, antibiotics, laser therapy and medicated nail polish.

Anti-Fungal Drugs

The most popular treatment approach is the use of oral anti-fungal drugs, such as Sporonox or Lamisil. These products have been used effectively by millions of people, and while extended use can result in unwanted side effects, the rate of success is impressive. Some of these medications also come in the form of anti-fungal creams.

Nail Removal

For severe or chronic cases of toenail fungus, the affected nail can be removed, eliminating the nutrient source that the fungi require. This will also let doctors clean out the affected area and properly bandage it for a normal recovery.


When toenail fungus reaches a severe level, it will cause cracking in the nail, allowing many other types of infections into the wound. Antibiotics are often recommended for people with severe fungus, as it will account for any other infections you may have contracted.

Medicated Nail Polish

In the early stages of toenail fungus, it is possible to treat the conditions with a medicated form of nail polish. Even for men, you can apply this clear liquid over the affected toes, and see results with 1-2 weeks.

Laser Therapy

Although rarely used, some people turn to carbon dioxide laser therapy to penetrate the nail and eliminate the offending fungi. This approach is quite expensive and only available in select parts of the world.

Home Remedies for Toenail Fungus

For those who prefer to handle their minor medical conditions in a more natural way, there are many home remedies for toenail fungus including the use of tea tree oil, coconut oil, mouthwash, oregano oil, vinegar and lemon juice.

Coconut Oil

The natural anti-fungal qualities of this oil make it ideal for applying to infected toenails. You can rub a small amount of this oil on the nail 2-3 times per day for improved symptoms in 1-2 weeks.

Tea Tree Oil

Known as one of the most potent anti-fungal substances yet discovered, tea tree oil is a powerful substance that can eliminate countless infections. Only a few diluted drops are required for this remedy to be effective and it can be used 1-2 times per day until the symptoms clear up.


Just as people use mouthwash to eliminate fungal infections in the mouth, it can also be effective when topically applied to toenail fungus. Simply dip a paper towel or rag in mouthwash and wrap your toe for 10-15 minutes.


This common household item has many anti-fungal properties and can quickly clear up a toenail fungus infection, particularly if you catch it early on. Simply mix 1 part vinegar with 2 parts warm water and allow your toes to soak for 10-15 minutes.

Oregano Oil

One of the active ingredients in oregano oil is thymol, a powerful antioxidant that has been directly connected with reducing toenail fungus. Simply apply a few drops to the affected nail every morning and you’ll see good results within a week.

Lemon Juice

 The anti-fungal and antiseptic properties of lemon juice are mainly derived from the high concentration of citric acid. This can stop the spread of the toenail fungus, while antioxidants can help clear out damaged cells and stimulate the repair and growth of your healthy toenail.

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