Fungal infection, or onychomycosis, is a common foot health problem. A majority of sufferers don’t seek treatment, perhaps because they don’t even recognize the existence of a problem. One reason that people may ignore the infection is that it can be present for years without causing pain. Its prevalence rises sharply among older adults. The disease, characterized by a change in a toenail’s color, is often considered nothing more than a mere blemish — ugly and embarrassing. It is apparently assumed that since white markings or a darkening of the nail are minor occurrences, the change represents something minor as well, even when the blemish spreads. In many cases, however, that change in color is the start of an aggravating disease that ultimately could take many months to control. It is an infection underneath the surface of the nail, and it can penetrate the nail. This disease can frequently be accompanied by a secondary bacterial and/or yeast infection in or around the nail plate.
Onychomycosis is an infection of the bed and plate underlying the surface of the nail caused by various types of fungi commonly found in the environment. Fungi are simple parasitic plant organisms (such as molds and mildew) that lack chlorophyll and therefore do not require sunlight for growth. A group of fungi called dermatophytes easily attack the nail, thriving on keratin (the nail’s protein substance). When the tiny organisms take hold, the nail may become thicker, yellowish-brown or darker in color, and foul smelling. Debris may collect beneath the nail plate, white marks frequently appear on the nail plate, and the infection is capable of spreading to other toenails, the skin, or even fingernails. Other contributory factors may be a history of athlete’s foot, improper cleansing, anxiety, and excessive perspiration.