Gnarly Nails

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Section: BONUS GUIDE NAIL HEALTH

Toenail fungus is not a pretty sight. Read on to find out how you got it--and how to avoid it

what is it? Docs refer to fungal infections of the toenails or fingernails as onychomycosis (OM), which is the most common nail disease in adults. OM includes three main classes of fungi (microscopic critters akin to mold and mildew that thrive in warm, moist environments, such as inside athletic shoes and communal showers): dermatophytes, yeasts, and nondermatophyte molds. When viewed under a microscope, dermatophytes--by far the most common cause of OM--resemble lovely, undulating seaweed, not the worms that 19th-century scientists thought they were.

As these fungi grow, they feed on keratin, the protein that makes up the hard surface of nails. Over time, the affected nails become thick, rough, and ghoulishly discolored (hues range from a milky white to yellow, green, and brown). In some instances, the edges of the nails crumble away, and the infected toes and/or fingers become painful and less dexterous, making it tough to do everyday things like type, walk, or stand on tiptoe.

who gets it? A better question might be, who doesn't? According to one estimate, one-fifth of the US population between ages 40 and 60 has OM. Plus, the incidence of nail fungus is steadily rising, thanks in large part to the aging population (the elderly and those in poor health often have lowered immunity and are unable to fight off infection) and other factors. Men are more prone to OM than women. Common risk factors include a weak immune system; a family history of the infection; a warm, sweat-inducing climate; regular exercise; communal bathing or showering; and tight footwear.
what can I do?

See your doctor today to discuss treatment. OM rarely goes away on its own. Once it's in, it's in. To prevent OM, try these four fungi-fighting tips:

• Invest in high-tech socks Synthetic socks that wick away moisture keep your feet drier than cotton or wool socks--and less inviting to fungi. They look like sports socks, so slip them under your regular socks when you're not wearing athletic shoes.

• Don gloves when you're on dish duty Rubber gloves will protect your hands from overexposure to water. Turn them inside out to dry between uses.

• Slip a pair of flip-flops into your gym bag And wear them, without fail, in the locker room, in the communal shower, and on the deck of any public swimming pool.

• Resist picking Pulling at the skin around your nails or cutting deeply into the corners of your nails while you're trimming them can allow fungi easy access--which is the last thing you want.

fast fungus fact

The nails of your big toes are those most likely to develop a fungus, perhaps because they're constantly rubbing against the inside of your shoes. The friction creates the warm, moist environment fungi love.
file this way

When American Idol judge Paula Abdul contracted a serious infection from a professional manicure 2 years ago, Simon Cowell was the least of her irritants. To make sure your nails get the safest treatment at the salon, Mayo Clinic experts suggest that you:

• Check before you sit Before settling into the chair, be sure to ask your manicurist or pedicurist if the salon sterilizes its instruments (the most effective way is to heat them in an autoclave). Or, better yet, bring your own.

• Nix artificial nails They can trap unwanted moisture and worsen an infection that's already taken hold.
diabetic? don't ignore nail fungus

For people with diabetes, nail fungus isn't just unsightly--it's a serious health concern. Diabetics are prone to nerve damage (called neuropathy) in their feet, which can reduce their ability to feel pain and make them slow to care for foot injuries. An open wound adjacent to an OM-infested nail can encourage the fungus to spread and cause serious infection. If you're diabetic, see your doctor today if one or more of your nails is thickened; brittle, crumbly, or ragged; distorted in shape; flat or dull; or yellow, green, brown, or black in color.

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