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Your body hosts millions of microscopic organisms, some harmful, some hurtful. Fungi are one type of tiny, plant-like organism that lives on your body or inside it. Unlike plants, they have no chlorophyll, a chemical which turns sunlight into food. To survive, fungi absorb nutrients from other living or dead things. They thrive in warm, moist places, like underneath your toenails.
It is estimated that around 36 million people in the United States have onychomycosis, a fungal nail infection. Fungal nail infections are more common in toenails, but they also occur in fingernails. They are more likely in adults and often follow a fungal foot infection, like athlete's foot.
When the nail is infected with fungi, it becomes yellowish, dry and brittle. The nail also becomes thicker, as layers of fungi grow and bloom. The nail may even separate from the skin, slightly rising off the toe.
Locker rooms, public pools and gym showers can all be sources of fungal infections. Fungi love these hot, damp environments. Nail salons can also be a source of fungal infection. If the foot tub is not properly cleaned after a pedicure, fungi can live there, infecting the next person that puts their feet in tub.
Perhaps the best way to prevent a fungal toenail infection is not to go barefoot at public pools or locker rooms. When you go to the nail salon, be sure the equipment is properly cleaned.
Although they may not hurt, it is best to treat fungal infections early. Untreated fungal infections can become very painful, making it difficult to walk and uncomfortable to wear shoes.
Doctors prescribe topical ointments or oral medication depending on how much the fungus has grown. Fungal nail infections are not life threatening. It can take years before the infection becomes large enough to cause pain or difficulty walking.