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Toenail Fungus: What Can Happen if You Don’t Treat It

By HERWriter
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toenail fungus: what if it's left untreated? MonkeyBusiness Images/PhotoSpin

Toenail fungus is a difficult condition to get rid of. It is the most common nail disease in adults particularly those over the age of 60. According to PDR health, 2-14% of the population has a toenail fungus infection (onychomycosis). Toenails are more likely to be infected than fingernails.

Achieving success with treatment can have risks, is expensive or can take a long time. The New York Times (NYT) reported that Lamisil, an oral treatment, is the most effective but must be taken for 90 days and brings with it the risk of liver disease. Laser treatment is expensive, as much as $1000 a treatment, and based on one clinical trial only about one-third of the people treated were cured.

There is an antifungal nail polish called Penlac Nail Lacquer with active ingredient ciclopirox that is approved by the FDA. But according to Dr. Bryan C. Markinson, the chief of podiatric medicine and surgery at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, it is not very popular nor very effective. The polish needs to be used daily for over a year to be really effective and compliance tends to wane after a few months.

One naturally wonders, what could happen if no treatment was done. How bad would it get?

In young people, it may take some time before additional problems appear. The fungus will spread down the nail from the tip towards the cuticle. The fungus can also spread to other parts of the body or skin through small cracks under the nail bed. The cracks allow additional bacteria to enter.

The Mayo Clinic stated that the affected nail can separate from the nail bed. The nail can become more brittle and inflamed causing pain in fingertips or toes.

People who have diabetes, are immunosuppressed from taking steroids or chemotherapy, or are elderly have the greatest risk. Anyone with poor circulation or nerve damage, as from diabetes, can develop more severe consequences.

Nail fungus will not go away without some type of treatment. Unfortunately, it can also come back, even with treatment, but not doing anything is not a good idea.

The first thing to do if you suspect you have a nail fungus is to have a dermatologist or podiatrist check your nails to determine if you really do.

According to Maryland podiatrist Dr. Dr. Mikel Daniels’ website, there are numerous other conditions that may mimic toenail fungus such as psoriasis, contact dermatitis, trauma to the nail or other illnesses that cause whitening of the nail may resemble a fungus.

Next, you should discuss treatment options available with the doctor including some of the more known over-the-counter treatments.

The Mayo Clinic website mentioned two alternative treatments.

One is soaking the nails for 15 to 20 minutes in a mixture of 1 part vinegar to 2 parts warm water. This can be done daily or if irritation develops, two or three times a week.

Vicks vapor rub has not been tested in clinical studies, so there is no one method promoted, but some people have reported it is effective.

Dr. Andrew Weil, world-renowned leader and pioneer in the field of integrative medicine, recommended giving tea tree oil or grapefruit seed extract a try. Paint the oil on affected nails twice a day for at least two months.

Whatever you do, don’t delay having your nails checked by a health professional. The longer nail fungus has been present the harder it will be to treat.


Nail Fungus. PDRhealth. Physicians’ Desk Reference. Web Oct. 13, 2013.

Ask Well: Remedies for Nail Fungus. New York Times.com. Web Oct. 13, 2013.

Ask Well: Leaving Nail Fungus Untreated. New York Times.com. Web Oct. 13, 2013.

Laser Treatment for Toenails: Fact and Myth. Maryland Podiatrist.com. Web Oct. 13, 2013.

Nail fungus. Mayoclinic.com. Web Oct. 13, 2013. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/nail-fungus/DS00084/METHOD=print

Nail Fungus. Weil: Dr. Andrew Weil. Dr. Weil.com. Web Oct. 13, 2013. http://www.drweil.com/drw/u/ART03139/Nail-Fungus.html

Michele is an R.N. freelance writer with a special interest in woman’s healthcare and quality of care issues. Other articles by Michele are at www.helium.com/users/487540/show_articles

Edited by Jody Smith

Add a Comment3 Comments



Hi Shana,

Toe nail fungus thrives in warm moist places like running shoes so I’m sure you are not alone with this problem.  Good luck with your appointment and I hope you find a treatment that works well for you.

October 14, 2013 - 1:10pm

Hi Shana,

Toe nail fungus thrives in warm moist places like running shoes so I’m sure you are not alone with this problem.  Good luck with your appointment and I hope you find a treatment that works well for you.


October 14, 2013 - 1:09pm

Thank you for sharing this information. I've suspected some problems with my toenails and have been avoiding getting them checked out. I'm an avid runner and just assumed bad feet, toes and nails come hand and hand, but that is certainly no excuse not to do something about it. This is just the push I needed to bring it up to my doctor in my next check up!

October 14, 2013 - 12:48pm
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.