Toenail Problems

There are many people with toenail problems. I wonder if toenails are the most neglected part of our anatomy. I have written about ingrown toenails and fungus infection in the nails. I feel it is time to revisit the subject.

The nails are appendages of our most versatile organ – skin. Besides nails, the skin has three other appendages – hairs, sweat glands, and sebaceous glands.

Nails protect the tips of our fingers and toes. Hairs protect and provide warmth to the skin. Sweat glands help regulate body temperature and fluid and electrolyte balance. Sebaceous glands provide oil and odour to the skin.

The nail has a free end which we trim on regular basis. The two sides of the nail are under the skin folds. The root is at the base where the growth occurs. The average rate of growth of the nail is 0.1 mm a day or 3 mm per month. About 3.6 cm a year.

Fingernails grow faster than toenails. Both grow faster in the summer than in the winter. The nails grow rapidly in “nail biters” and slowly in people confined to bed. The growth is faster in males than females. Certain illnesses can arrest the growth.

The nail can be a window for physicians to suspect other illnesses. Normally, nails are flat and light pink. They are pale in anaemia. Nails in general and big toenail in particular can be sites of many problems. Ingrown big toenail with infection and pain is a very common condition. It can lead to gangrene and amputation in patients with diabetes and circulatory problems.

Ingrown toenail of the big toe usually occurs when sweaty feet are encased in tight shoes. The situation gets worse when the nail is trimmed short and the corners are curved down. The side of the nail curls inwards and grows to form outer spikes. This causes painful infection of the overhanging nail fold.

Ingrown toenails can be prevented by keeping feet nice and clean. Wear roomy shoes and clean cotton socks. Allow the outer corners of the nail to grow over the skin margins placing small piece of cotton soaked in an antiseptic just under the outer corners of the nail. Cut the nails straight. Antibiotics will help relieve acute infection but will not cure the primary problem.

If all this fails then surgical treatment becomes necessary. Simple whole nail avulsion or wedge removal of the nail can result in more than 50 percent recurrence rate. The best results are obtained by removing the root at the same time. This is done under local anaesthetic in a doctor’s office. About 10 days of tender loving care of the big toe after the surgery usually results in satisfactory outcome. There is about 10 percent or less recurrence rate.

Fungal infection of the nails is common as well. It affects toenails more than finger nails. The nail is thickened and discolored. It is usually yellowish. The nail may grow in a twisted manner. The infection is picked up in a public place where it is transmitted from person to person. Poor feet hygiene does not help.

Fungus infection is best treated with anti-fungal therapy orally and locally for three months. Cure rate is around 80 percent. Ongoing meticulous foot care is very important to prevent recurrence.

In my view, walking bare feet is the worst thing you can do for your feet. Wash your feet at least once a day (twice if your feet sweat a lot) with soap and water. Dry them well with a soft towel. Wear good quality clean socks and proper fitting comfortable shoes.

If you love your feet then take good care of them.

Thought for the week:

“War is the unfolding of miscalculations.” – Barbara Tuchman (1912-1989)

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