Onychomycosis (also known as “dermatophytic onychomycosis,” or “tinea unguium”) means fungal infection of the nail. It is the most common disease of the nails and constitutes about a half of all nail abnormalities.
There are four classic types of onychomycosis:
- Distal subungual onychomycosis is the most common form of tinea unguium, and is usually caused by Trichophyton rubrum, which invades the nail bed and the underside of the nail plate.
- White superficial onychomycosis (WSO) is caused by fungal invasion of the superficial layers of the nail plate to form “white islands” on the plate. It accounts for only 10 percent of onychomycosis cases. In some cases, WSO is a misdiagnosis of “keratin granulations” which are not a fungus, but a reaction to nail polish that can cause the nails to have a chalky white appearance. A laboratory test should be performed to confirm.
- Proximal subungual onychomycosis is fungal penetration of the newly formed nail plate through the proximal nail fold. It is the least common form of tinea unguium in healthy people, but is found more commonly when the patient is immunocompromised.
- Candidal onychomycosis is Candida species invasion of the fingernails, usually occurring in persons who frequently immerse their hands in water. This normally requires the prior damage of the nail by infection or trauma.
Signs and symptoms
The most common symptom of a fungal nail infection is the nail becoming thickened and discoloured: white, black, yellow or green. As the infection progresses the nail can become brittle, with pieces breaking off or coming away from the toe or finger completely. If left untreated, the skin can become inflamed and painful underneath and around the nail. There may also be white or yellow patches on the nailbed or scaly skin next to the nail. There is usually no pain or other bodily symptoms, unless the disease is severe. People with onychomycosis may experience significant psychosocial problems due to the appearance of the nail, particularly when fingers – which are always visible – rather than toenails are affected.
Dermatophytids are fungus-free skin lesions that sometimes form as a result of a fungus infection in another part of the body. This could take the form of a rash or itch in an area of the body that is not infected with the fungus. Dermatophytids can be thought of as an allergic reaction to the fungus.
The causative pathogens of onychomycosis include dermatophytes, Candida, and nondermatophytic molds. Dermatophytes are the fungi most commonly responsible for onychomycosis in the temperate western countries; while Candida and nondermatophytic molds are more frequently involved in the tropics and subtropics with a hot and humid climate.
Trichophyton rubrum is the most common dermatophyte involved in onychomycosis. Other dermatophytes that may be involved are T. interdigitale, Epidermophyton floccosum, T. violaceum, Microsporum gypseum, T. tonsurans, T. soudanense A common outdated name that may still be reported by medical laboratories is Trichophyton mentagrophytes for T. interdigitale. The name T. mentagrophytes is now restricted to the agent of favus skin infection of the mouse; though this fungus may be transmitted from mice and their danders to humans, it generally infects skin and not nails.
Other causative pathogens include Candida and nondermatophytic molds, in particular members of the mold generation Scytalidium (name recently changed to Neoscytalidium), Scopulariopsis, and Aspergillus. Candida spp. mainly cause fingernail onychomycosis in people whose hands are often submerged in water. Scytalidium mainly affects people in the tropics, though it persists if they later move to areas of temperate climate.
Other molds more commonly affect people older than 60 years, and their presence in the nail reflects a slight weakening in the nail’s ability to defend itself against fungal invasion.
Aging is the most common risk factor for onychomycosis due to diminished blood circulation, longer exposure to fungi, and nails which grow more slowly and thicken, increasing susceptibility to infection. Nail fungus tends to affect men more often than women, and is associated with a family history of this infection.
Other risk factors include perspiring heavily, being in a humid or moist environment, psoriasis, wearing socks and shoes that hinder ventilation and do not absorb perspiration, going barefoot in damp public places such as swimming pools, gyms and shower rooms, having athlete’s foot (tinea pedis), minor skin or nail injury, damaged nail, or other infection, and having diabetes, circulation problems, which may also lead to lower peripheral temperatures on hands and feet, or a weakened immune system.
To avoid misdiagnosis as nail psoriasis, lichen planus, contact dermatitis, trauma, nail bed tumor or yellow nail syndrome, laboratory confirmation may be necessary. The three main approaches are potassium hydroxide smear, culture and histology. This involves microscopic examination and culture of nail scrapings or clippings. Recent results indicate the most sensitive diagnostic approaches are direct smear combined with histological examination, and nail plate biopsy using periodic acid-Schiff stain. To reliably identify nondermatophyte molds, several samples may be necessary.