Fungal toenail infections can cause bothersome symptoms, including toenails that appear brittle, crumbly, and discolored.
Learning how to treat the infection is important, but if you’re experiencing symptoms of a fungal toenail infection, you may also be curious to know whether or not it’s contagious.
In this article, I’ll explain what a fungal toenail infection is as well as its risk factors and causes. I’ll also cover whether the infection is contagious and how it’s diagnosed.
Finally, I’ll cover which treatment options are available and when you may want to speak with your medical provider to confirm a fungal toenail infection.
What is Toenail Fungus?
Toenail fungus is a type of fungus that infects the toenail and/or skin around it.
Anyone can get a toenail infection, but some people are at higher risk, including:
- Older adults
- People with certain medical conditions, including diabetes, peripheral artery disease (PAD), HIV and other autoimmune conditions
- People with certain skin conditions, including psoriasis
- People with other fungal infections, like athlete’s foot
- People who wear tight-fitting shoes
- People with minor skin or nail injuries
- People with deformed nail or nail disease
- People who are in frequent contact with infectious fungi (in places like swimming pools, steam rooms, and saunas)
How to Know if You Have Toenail Fungus?
You can usually tell if you have a fungal toenail infection based on the change in the look and feel of your toenails.
A fungal toenail infection can cause your toenails to look or appear:
- White, yellow, or brown
- Brittle or crumbly
- Dull and lackluster
- Fragile or cracked
- Streaked with white or yellow patches (streaks can also appear as small dots)
- Detached from the nail bed
Is Toenail Fungus Contagious?
Yes, fungal infections in general are contagious, including fungal toenail infections.
Fungal toenail infections can be spread to others through direct skin-to-skin contact but are more often spread through shedding of infected dead skin and nail cells and contact with infected surfaces, like shoes or public shower floors.
This is why wearing open shoes in public showers and other shared wet spaces can help to prevent fungal toenail infections.
Can It Spread to Other Areas of the Body?
It is possible but it’s usually contained to the toes or feet.
When it spreads, a fungal toenail infection usually spreads to other nails, the webbed area in between the toes, and sometimes the whole foot.
In some cases, a fungal toenail infection can spread to the groin (causing jock itch) or to the scalp, but this is not common.
There are several types of fungi that can cause a fungal toenail infection.
Dermatophytes, for example, are the type of fungus that cause most types of fungal toenail infections.
Your provider will perform a physical examination of your toe and toenail to confirm diagnosis of a fungal toenail infection.
Sometimes, they will also look at scrapings from your nail under a microscope, which can also help them determine the type of fungus causing the infection.
In some cases, your provider may want to send a sample of your toenail or toenail tissue to a laboratory for examination or culture, but this is less common.
Unfortunately, fungal toenail infections can sometimes be tough to treat.
Most medications must be used for several weeks up to several months to completely treat the fungal infection.
Luckily, several treatments have shown to be effective at treating them, including:
- Prescription nail polish: Applying a prescription, colorless nail polish that contains either amorolfine or ciclopirox to the surface of the affected nail may work to treat a fungal toenail infection.
- Treatment sets: There are treatment sets that contain a urea-based cream, a spatula for scraping, and a topical cream containing bifonazole, that can work to treat the infection.
- Antifungal tablets: In some cases, antifungal tablets are the most appropriate treatment option. But they usually need to be taken for months and can cause certain side effects, including liver issues.
- Laser treatments: Laser treatments can work to clear fungal toenail infections in some people, but they’re less effective than medication.
- Nail removal: Though not always necessary, your provider may recommend completely removing the toenail in more severe cases.
Importantly, most OTC topical treatments will not work to treat a fungal toenail infection. These medications are not able to fully penetrate the nail to cure the infection.
When To See a Medical Provider
It’s a good idea to reach out to your medical provider if you’re experiencing symptoms of a fungal toenail infection that doesn’t go away or improve.
Additionally, if your toenails are painful to touch, red, or drain pus, reach out to a medical provider for immediate help.
How K Health Can Help
Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app? Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and, if needed, text with a doctor in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.
Frequently Asked Questions
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
Challenges and Opportunities in the Management of Onychomycosis. (2018).
Fungal nail infection. (2020).
Fungal Nail Infections. (2020).
Nail fungus: Overview. (2015).
Prevalence and epidemiology of onychomycosis in patients visiting physicians’ offices: a multicenter canadian survey of 15,000 patients. (2000).