Is Toenail Fungus Contagious?

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Fact-checked & edited by Dr. Helen Okoye, MD, MBA, MS-Epi

toenail fungusIf you have been diagnosed with toenail fungus, it is only normal that you are interested if you are contagious or not. The same level of interest is valid, in the situation that someone you know has been diagnosed with this condition.

Well, to put in a nutshell, toenail fungus is contagious, being transmitted from one person to the other or through various objects/surfaces.

In the paragraphs that follow, we will shed light on the matter, helping you understand more about the way toenail fungus is transmitted and also how to reduce the risk of contagiousness.

How is toenail fungus actually contracted?

The easiest and most certain form of transmission is direct contact with a person who is suffering from toenail fungus (touching the toenails or the skin around them). It is important to understand that the level of contagiousness is not high but it is present nonetheless.

Moreover, toenail fungus can be contracted by sharing objects of personal hygiene (towels, for example) or other infected items, such as shoes or socks.

Often times, the fungal infection is transmitted through infected nail polish or tools, as is the situation in nail salons. It is sufficient for one single infected person to visit the salon and have a nail treatment, in order for the tools used in the process to become contaminated.

If proper sterilization methods are not taken between treatments or the same bottle of nail polish is used on various people, it is guaranteed that the infection will spread.

Whenever you will visit a salon to get a manicure or a pedicure, make sure to ask about sterilization and health practices in general. As for the nail polish, it is for the best to bring your own bottle.

In many situations, the person suffers from another type of infection first, meaning athlete’s foot. This infection is easily acquired in public places, especially if one walks barefoot (swimming pools, locker rooms, public showers). Then, as the infection is not treated, the fungus will spread from the soles to the toes and toenails, causing the symptoms we all know.

The easiest way to prevent all of these problems is to wear flip flops or sandals whenever you find yourself in any of the above-mentioned public places.

There are a number of factors that might favor the fungal infection, such as the acute trauma to the nail. For example, if someone drops a heavy object on your toenail(s), this kind of trauma can leave you susceptible for a fungal infection in that area.

However, it is important to understand that repetitive trauma, such as the one caused by wearing ill-fitted shoes, can lead to similar problems. A wound is the ideal entry point for the fungus, causing a serious infection.

People who are professional athletes are also more susceptible to contracting such fungal infections. This is because they spend a lot of time wearing the same pair of shoes, the excess humidity representing an environment in which the fungus thrives.

Moreover, they have the tendency of sharing objects of personal hygiene and walking barefoot in the shower or locker room, causing the fungal infection to easily spread from one person to the other. The fungal infection is also favored by the repetitive trauma; as they perform a lot of sudden, stopping movements, the forefoot will repeatedly hit the inside of the shoe.

In the initial stage, the toenail fungus is hard to identify, as it appears only as a small patch of discoloration on one or several toenails. However, if no treatment measures are taken, the fungal infection will extend, covering the entire nail and causing other symptoms (pain, sensation of pressure etc.).

The infection can spread quite easily from one toenail to the other and even from one foot to the other (through socks most often). In some situations, the fungal infection can be transmitted to the genitals, as the underwear touches the infected toenails (this is the reason why, when getting dressed, it is recommended to put the socks first and the underwear second).

What can you do to reduce the risk of contagion?

The first and most important thing is that you follow excellent hygiene measures, making sure that both your feet and your hands are always clean and dry. When you arrive home, after an entire day spent in the same pair of shoes, be sure to wash your feet and allow them to breathe.

In regard to shoes, it is recommended to purchase only quality footwear, making sure that it fits well. Borrowing shoes or socks from other people is not indicated, as you never know who might suffer from a fungal infection.

When it comes to socks, it is recommended to change the socks on a daily basis, especially during the summer season (when the perspiration is intense). Only wear socks that are made from fabrics that can absorb excess moisture, such as wool, polypropylene or nylon. Upon washing your feet, make sure that you dry them thoroughly, as excess moisture can favor fungal overgrowth.

You can also apply anti-fungal powder after each bath; keep in mind that the socks, despite washing, can retain fungal spores. For this reason, before each wash, it is for the best to soak them in bleach or eucalyptus oil.

Even though has been said before, you have to refrain from walking barefoot in public places, such as swimming pools, locker rooms or public showers. Always wear your own pair of flip flops or sandals and do not borrow these from other people. The same goes for objects of personal hygiene, as these often harbor fungal spores. No matter how tempting it might be to borrow a towel from a friend, it is only get you in trouble. In the situation that you are suffering from such an infection, be sure to tell other people, so that they aware of the risks.

Proper nail care can reduce the risk of contagiousness down to a minimum. You should always take your time to trim your nails, making sure that you begin at one corner and continue straight across to the other one. Also, you should use a quality file, using it especially on thickened areas (and always after soaking your feet in soapy water).

Excess moisture is one of the main factors that contributes to the appearance of toenail fungus, increasing the risk of contagiousness as well. In order to protect yourself against such problems, it is recommended to wear open-toe footwear during summers. Make sure to throw away any old shoes or socks, as these can harbor fungal spores and cause the infection to re-occur.

Avoid pushing your cuticles back or picking the skin around the nails, as this will create an ideal spot for the fungi to enter. Always wash your hands after you have touched an infected nail, in order to reduce the risk of spreading the infection to the other toenails.

Research confirms that toenail fungus is a contagious condition

According to a patient information leaflet[1] developed by the BMJ Group, toenail fungus is a contagious condition. The authors of the study confirm the fact that the fungi responsible for such infections prefer to live in areas that are warm and damp, such as public showers and locker rooms (on the floor).

They draw attention to the fact that such infections are easily contracted, the success of the diagnosis being guaranteed by the early identification. In the same leaflet, we are informed that the risk of contagiousness is higher in people who suffer from an underlying condition, such as diabetes (or any other condition that can cause the immune system to not function properly).

As an article[2] presenting guidelines for treatment of onychomycosis points out, the toenail fungus is an often encountered condition. Its high prevalence is directly related to the fact that public areas, such as swimming pools, locker rooms or showers are highly contaminated with fungal spores.

It is brought to our attention that it is highly difficult to disinfect such areas, as the keratin actually protects the fungal spores. For this reason, it is rather recommended to concentrate on treating those who are infected and educating the population on prevention measures, rather than reduce the fungal contamination of such areas.

A study[3] regarding fungal nail infections and published online on the website of the US National Library of Medicine discusses the risk factors for onychomycosis. This contagious condition is more common in people who suffer from underlying conditions, such as diabetes or in those who have a weak immune system.

Interesting enough, it is not encountered in those who live in a tropical climate, as they do not wear occlusive footwear (thus, they do not create a warm and moist environment in which fungi can thrive and develop).

Final word

Toenail fungus is a contagious condition, one that can spread from one person to the other and also through sharing personal objects or items.

The fungal infection can be contracted in public areas, such as swimming pools, locker rooms or showers, this being the reason why you should refrain from walking barefoot when visiting such places.

By following excellent hygiene measures, you can reduce the risk of getting a fungal infection down to a minimum and enjoy healthy toenails.

References
[1] Fungal nail infections. Patient information from the BMJ Group. 2016. Retrieved from: http://bestpractice.bmj.com/best-practice/pdf/patient-summaries/532246.pdf
[2] Guidelines for treatment of onychomycosis. British Journal of Dermatology, 2003, 148: 402-410. Retrieved from: http://www.mycology.adelaide.edu.au/downloads/Onychomycosis.pdf
[3] Fungal nail infections (onychomycosis): a never-ending story? US National Library of Medicine, 2014, 10(6). Retrieved from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4047123/


About the Author Helen Anderson

Helen is a podiatry student that noticed most solid information on foot health was locked away in books since most practitioners are a bit old school. She aims to bring this body of knowledge on-line in an easy and accessible way, and end the embarrassment associated with seeking help for foot health problems.

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