Fungal nail infections aren’t just ugly – they can spread to skin and cause nail loss. Naturopath Sandi Rogers shows you how natural medicine can help.

A white dot or a yellow tinge to a nail can be the first sign of a fungal nail infection. The condition – called onychomycosis – mainly occurs on a toenail and less often on a fingernail, with the most common culprit being a fungus known as a dermatophyte, although yeasts and moulds can also be responsible. These microscopic organisms enter via cracks in the nail, a minuscule separation between nail and nail bed, or through skin cuts so tiny they’re invisible to the naked eye.

Over time the dot expands to involve the nail bed. The nail can change colour, thicken, and possibly become warped or oddly shaped and break easily and eventually separate the nail from its bed, which is painful. Left untreated, an infection may spread to other toenails, fingernails, or the skin. The reason toenails are targeted most frequently is that toes are often warm and damp: the perfect environment to cultivate the fungus. Toes also tend to have less blood flow than fingers, which makes it harder for the body’s immune system to detect and halt infection. Oral antifungal medicines can have very undesirable side effects, including liver damage, skin rashes, headaches, diarrhoea, and heart problems.

Are you at risk?

Men are more likely to suffer onychomycosis than women, but with both genders the likelihood increases with age due to reduced blood flow and slower-growing nails. Diabetics are at higher risk as they may have reduced blood circulation to, and nerve supply in, the feet; they are also more prone to develop a bacterial skin infection called cellulitis. Any relatively minor foot injury – including nail fungal infection – can cause serious complications in diabetics, so consulting a GP is critical. Smoking, athlete’s foot, psoriasis, a weak immune system, are also risk factors as are spending a lot of time in water, and working in a humid environment, or in jobs where hands are often wet. Additional risk factors include: perspiring heavily, living with someone who has onychomycosis, wearing socks that don’t absorb perspiration or shoes that don’t allow air to move through them, and walking barefoot in damp communal areas, such as swimming pools and gyms. Always protect feet with shower shoes.

It’s important to see your GP for a diagnosis as the typical symptoms of nail fungus can resemble other conditions, notably psoriasis. Allopathic treatment generally involves long-term use of topical creams and/or oral antifungal medication, but these are very strong and toxic remedies that ultimately affect the liver and compromise health generally: oral antifungals, for example, are associated with headaches, gastrointestinal upsets, and heart problems. See a podiatrist to have nails trimmed properly, keep feet clean and dry them well, paying particular attention to between the toes, and apply tea tree oil topically to nails with a cotton bud twice daily. Don’t be tempted to camouflage discoloured nails with polish as this prevents the nail bed from ‘breathing’, which traps the fungus. And because nail fungal infections have a direct link to a sluggish immune system and may lead to more serious conditions, it’s essential to consult a qualified natural therapist to strengthen the immune system.

Sandi Rogers, EDD, ND, is a Life Member of the Australian Traditional Medicine Society.