Warm, sweaty feet are a breeding ground for a toenail fungal infection. Find out how you can sidestep this threat and keep your feet healthy.
Preventing toenail fungus may not be at the top of your to-do list, but perhaps it should be. Fungi are nearly everywhere in our environment, and they particularly love dark, moist, warm places, like inside your shoes. That makes it relatively easy to stumble upon a toenail fungal infection (onychomycosis).
As many as half of all nail disorders are due to toenail fungal infection, and the condition affects about 14 percent of the population, according to a study published an an issue of The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology.
How Toenail Fungal Infections Develop
Toenail fungal infections are most often caused by microscopic organisms called dermatophytes. These organisms feed on keratin, the protein found in nails and hair.
There are several factors that increase your risk of developing a toenail fungal infection. “Most people contract toenail fungus from a fungal skin infection such as athlete’s foot that transfers to the nail,” says Jane E. Andersen, DPM, a podiatrist at Chapel Hill Foot and Ankle Associates in North Carolina and a spokesperson for the American Podiatric Medical Association. The wrong footwear can also take a toll on your toes. If toenails are traumatized by pressure from ill-fitting shoes, for instance, they’re weakened and more susceptible to fungus, she says.
Toenail fungus can cause the nails to become thick, discolored, and brittle. It can even cause the toenail to crumble and separate from the nail bed. This can be very painful and lead to difficulty walking.
Getting rid of a toenail fungal infection can be difficult because it can be resistant to treatment, which can take months. “Prevention is important because once the fungal infection gets into the nail, it becomes much more difficult to treat,” Andersen says.
Healthy Habits to Prevent Toenail Fungus
Healthy feet depend on good hygiene, so it’s important to keep your toes clean and dry. Follow these seven tips to avoid a toenail fungal infection:
- Clip your toenails correctly. Cut your toenails with properly sanitized nail scissors or clippers and make sure to cut them straight across. Andersen says it’s fine to use a nail file to gently file any sharp edges.
- Wear properly fitted shoes. “Shoes shouldn’t be touching your toenails in any way,” Andersen says. “Avoid sliding into shoes that are too big and jamming your toenails into the end of the shoe.” The American Academy of Family Physicians recommends buying shoes with a wide toe box that won’t cramp your toes.
- Choose breathable footwear. The more air that’s able to circulate around your feet, the drier and less susceptible to toenail fungus they’ll be. Your best bets: Shoes made of a breathable material like leather or canvas, according to the American College of Foot & Ankle Orthopedics & Medicine.
- Alternate your shoes. Putting on shoes that are still damp from yesterday’s sweaty workout will only increase your risk of a toenail fungal infection, so invest in a few good pairs and rotate them. “Don’t wear the same pair of shoes two days in a row,” Andersen says. “Allow them to air out between wearings.” And make sure they’re placed out in the open where they can dry thoroughly.
- Avoid going barefoot in public areas. Locker rooms, public pools, showers, and similar areas are loaded with fungi just waiting to get to your toes. “Always wear flip-flops, sandals, or shower shoes in a moist environment,” Andersen says.
- Disinfect regularly. Scrub your shower and disinfect it with a bleach-based cleanser, Andersen says. Spray your shoes with an antibacterial spray, especially if you’ve worn them without socks, and wash all socks in hot water with bleach to kill any fungi. Also wash your feet daily, making sure to thoroughly dry them afterward, especially between the toes where moisture can get trapped.
- Sprinkle your shoes. Use an antifungal powder to keep fungi at bay. Sprinkle the powder inside your socks and shoes before each wearing to prevent the growth of fungi spores, suggests the American College of Foot & Ankle Orthopedics & Medicine. This is especially important in hot weather when your feet tend to sweat more.