Nails serve an important function: supporting and protecting the delicate tips of your fingers and toes. The nail structure consists of a hard cover called the nail plate over the soft tissue that forms the nail bed. The nail bed is supplied with countless nerve endings, making it extremely sensitive to external stimuli.
If you’ve been neglecting the condition of your nails, it’s time to stop. One of the most common nail-related problems is a nail infection, which affects people of all ages. Nail infections won’t kill you, but they can certainly cause psychological, physical, and social impairment.
The agents that cause such infections are usually airborne such as fungi, but they can also be bacteria. When these microbes receive the right kind of environment, they multiply rapidly to give rise to an infection that slowly spreads to all parts of your nail structure, from the nail bed to the nail plate. If left unchecked, the infection can progress to the surrounding skin.
How to Prevent Nail Infections
Here are important preventive tips to keep nail infections at bay.
1. Keep your nails clean and dry
Most infectious agents thrive in a humid or moist environment with lots of cellular debris to feed upon, but fungi make the most of such conditions.
Fungi usually reproduce through spores. These are very tiny pollen-like bodies that are encapsulated with a solid protective covering and are dispersed in the air.
When these spores land on your body, the body’s temperature, moisture content or dampness, and airflow determine whether they will germinate into a full-blown infection or not. (1) This comes as no surprise then that your nails and their corners form a very convenient place for infectious agents to grow. It is important to note that fungal infections usually affect your toenails.
How to do
It may be wise to deep clean your nails every now and again to eliminate dead cells or dirt that can provide sustenance to infection-causing microbes.
- Immerse your nails in warm soapy water for 10 minutes to soften the nail enamel and the skin around it.
- Use a soft-bristled toothbrush to gently but properly scrub your nails and their edges.
- Let your nails air dry or wipe them with a soft cloth. You must also remove any traces of moisture from between your toes and fingers.
2. Trim your nails properly
Your nails are made of the same protein that makes up your hair: keratin. The fungi responsible for nail infections love to feed on this protein.
Some common keratinophilic fungi responsible for the majority of fungal skin infections in humans include trichophyton, candida, aspergillus, and penicillium. (2)
Such infectious agents limit themselves to the hair, nails, and outer layers of the skin, suggesting that they cannot penetrate any deeper. Despite this inability, they can cause symptoms such as extensive inflammation, itching, and discolored nails with scaly skin lesions.
How to do
- Always cut your nails straight across using a nail clipper, rather than curving the edges. It is best to wash your nail clippers with a disinfectant solution before using them. Make sure not to trim your nails so deep that your nail bed becomes exposed. As mentioned earlier, the nail bed has a lot of nerve endings that can be triggered by any kind of strain or injury, causing significant pain. This is why cutting your toenails too short can make wearing closed footwear a painful ordeal. The hard toe box exerts excessive pressure on the exposed nail bed, thus making it hurt.
- Once you are done trimming, smoothen out any abrupt edges that stick out from your nails. Use a nail file for this purpose, but again don’t file too much or too vigorously.
- If you suffer from any health issue that causes reduced blood flow to the feet, it is better to consult with a podiatrist regarding the proper precautions for nail trimming and filing.
3. Invest in proper footwear
Good-quality footwear plays an important role in keeping your feet, toes, and toenails in the best of condition, but what qualifies as good-quality footwear?
For starters, the front of your shoes must fit the curve of your toes but also provides enough wriggle room. Plus, there should be space for air to pass through to keep your feet properly ventilated. Shoes that are too tight make and keep your feet sweaty, which is conducive to the growth of infection-causing microbes.
As already been mentioned, microbes such as bacteria and fungi adjust very well in damp and closed environments. Proper air current brings in oxygen, and several bacterial strains cannot survive in it. However, more research is needed to see how bacteria respond to humidity and temperature. (3)
Excessively tight shoes can also lead to toenail injury. So it is important to make the distinction between well-fitted and tight. Loose footwear is also not the way to go as it doesn’t provide you a firm footing and rubs against your skin to cause injuries.
How to do
- Look for shoes that have a wide toe box that doesn’t pinch, strain, or cramp your toes.
- Wear footwear made with breathable materials, such as canvas or mesh, that allow more air circulation around your feet to keep them dry and prevent overheating.
- Make sure to dry your feet before putting on shoes. If your shoes are wet with water or sweat, dry them in the sun or by placing them next to a heating device before wearing them. Damp feet or footwear can promote the growth of microbes and increase your risk of developing a toenail infection.
- Your shoes will inadvertently collect dirt and sweat, so it’s best not to wear the same pair for many days at a stretch. Instead, choose a few comfortable options and use them in rotation.
- Choose your socks wisely and don’t wear the same ones for more than a day or two. The best kind of socks for sweaty feet are those made with light, airy fabrics that wick moisture away from your feet, such as those made with cotton. If your socks get wet, change out of them immediately.
4. Disinfect your shoes
Toenail infections can be fungal or bacterial. Onychomycosis is one of the most commonly reported toenail infections caused by the overgrowth of certain types of fungi, but bacterial ones are quite prevalent too. (4)
These pathogens can infect your nails in many ways, but one very common source of contamination is your shoes. Many different types of microbes, including staphylococcus, enterococcus, and molds, that thrive within the warm, humid confines of your footwear.
Touching your contaminated shoes can transfer the infection-causing microbes to your fingernails as well. (5)
How to do
- Use antifungal and antibacterial powders or sprays to disinfect the insides of your shoes. These products keep your shoes free of fungus and bacteria and thereby prevent toenail infections. While these products are useful for avoiding toenail infections, they have no effect once the infection has already occurred. So, they are more of a preventive tool rather than a treatment modality.
- Another useful tip to prevent microbial growth inside your shoes is to keep them dry at all times. Your running shoes tend to collect a lot of sweat when you go for your daily sprint or exercise. You can either keep them in the sun after use or next to a heat source to dry out all the sweat. It may be a good idea to buy more than one pair and switch between them.
5. Protect your nails in public areas
Community spaces such as gymnasiums, locker rooms, public pools or showers, saunas, and salons tend to have a warm, damp environment, which is perfect for the growth of different kinds of microbes, especially fungi.
Walking barefoot on these contaminated floors can transfer the fungus onto your foot or toenails, giving rise to an infection such as athlete’s foot and onychomycosis. (6)
Nail trauma, such as stubbing of toes and breaking of fingernails, is the most common cause of nail bed injury. Such injuries are particularly common in gyms where one has to work with heavy weights.
Nail traumas can lead to fungal infections such as onychomycosis and nail deformities. (7)
How to do
- Always take your own flip-flops or shower sandals when visiting the aforementioned places to protect your feet and toenails from infection. It’s a good idea to keep a pair handy in your vehicle for emergency situations.
- Before visiting a salon for a mani-pedi, do inquire about what hygiene measures they follow to limit microbial growth in their premises. This may seem a little too precautious, but better safe than sorry.
6. Leave your cuticles alone
Cuticles are essential scar tissue that protects your newly formed nails from bacteria and other infectious microbes.
Many people have the habit of picking at this pointy outgrowth until it tears off from the skin. This physical trauma can give rise to a lot of pain and even increase the risk of developing nail infections. The removal of the cuticle loosens your nail and exposes the underlying tissue, which can easily get infected.
Some people choose to get their cuticles trimmed at the salon during manicures, which is much less painful, but still not recommended by most experts. You need your cuticles intact to preserve the structural integrity of your nails, or else you will become highly susceptible to nail infections and seriously painful hangnails.
How to do
- A cuticle that sticks out from the edges of your nails can be quite irritating, which explains why many people can’t resist the urge to pull it out. You may get a little relief after doing this, but it won’t last long and is very little compared to the complications that might develop later. Forcefully pushing it back in can also induce trauma and therefore entails certain risks. So, just leave it alone and wait for it to split off on its own as new skin forms in its place.
- If you happen to damage your cuticle unintentionally, then this is what you need to do. Immerse the affected hand in warm water for 10 minutes and then pat it dry. Gently rub some jojoba or coconut oil over it for 5 minutes to soften the skin and relieve the discomfort. Once the cuticle skin becomes a little malleable, use an orangewood stick to gently push it back.
- If you are prone to split cuticles, regularly massage some cuticle oil over the edges of your nails to help keep them strong, healthy, and intact.
7. Keep your nails properly moisturized
If your nails don’t get enough moisture, they turn brittle and break, chip, split, or crack at the slightest pressure. Plus, the skin around your nails also starts to wear off, resulting in split cuticles.
Thus, it is very important to keep your nails well moisturized to strengthen their structural integrity. (8) Your skin needs moisture to facilitate proper cell turnover and other cellular operations, and this applies to your nails too. This simple measure will also make your cuticles look better.
How to do
- Coconut oil, olive oil, and jojoba oil are some of the best moisturizers that you can try to maintain the health of your nails. You can also purchase antimicrobial moisturizers, although the aforementioned oils are quite effective antimicrobials themselves. Massage the moisturizer all over your hands and feet, with a special focus on your nails and cuticles. For best results, apply the moisturizer on washed skin when it is still slightly damp, but not soaking wet. You can gently dab the excess moisture away, and then proceed with the moisturizer. Moisturizers work best on slightly damp skin as they trap and seal all the superficial moisture into the skin for lasting hydration.
- Since you are bound to use your hands and feet throughout the day, the moisturizer will inadvertently get wiped off and need reapplication. One way around this is to use it before bedtime so that it stays on overnight and gets ample time to penetrate deep into your skin.
8. Avoid using artificial nails
Using artificial nails is very common these days. They make your nails aesthetically pleasing and fancy, but they can also make you more susceptible to nail infections.
You will find more gram-negative bacteria (like the one that causes green nail syndrome) and fungi (mainly yeast) stuck in artificial fingernails than your natural nails. (9)
Another important point to remember is that disinfectants do not work very effectively in sanitizing such nails. (6)
How to do
If you can’t do without artificial nails, just limit their use to special occasions and make a concerted effort to keep them clean and hygienic at all times. The less time you have them on, the lesser will be your infection risk.
Plus, removing these cosmetic enhancements will allow your real nails to breathe and repair themselves. This is another reason to use them as little as possible, especially if you have a history of nail infections.
9. Look out for early signs of infections
They say “prevention is better than cure,” and this maxim fits perfectly for nail infections as well. It is far easier to avoid contracting a nail infection than treating it. All you have to do is to look after your nails the way you look after your skin and the rest of your body.
Be mindful of your nail hygiene and make nail care part of your routine. If you proactively take measures to keep your nails tidy and healthy, the risk of nail infection can be greatly reduced.
Plus, nail hygiene and health are essential for ensuring your overall health as well. Contaminated fingernails can transfer the infection to other parts of the body through touch or to the inside of your body when eating. Toenail infections can make it painful for you to walk and can limit your daily activity.
But if you do develop a nail infection, prompt treatment is the best way to reduce its severity and duration. To catch it early, you must first educate yourself about the possible signs of a nail infection. If you notice any of them, early treatment can nip the infection right in the bud with relative ease.
How to do
- Properly examine your toenails and fingernails at least once a week while taking a bath or shower. If your nails seem discolored, a fungal infection may be developing.
- While drying off your feet, take a good look at the soles for signs of scaling or peeling skin in between the toe areas. These are also early signs of a nail infection.
- If you have diabetes, you are highly susceptible to foot sores and infections. Thus, you must exercise extra care and precaution. Doctors recommend that you inspect your feet every few days for any signs of damage, injury, or infection.
- If you notice any abnormality in the nails or skin around the nails, such as pain, redness, swelling, or discoloration that persists, consult a podiatrist.
Keeping your nails healthy and clean is the most basic way to prevent nail infections. The above-listed recommendations can help you achieve that, provided you follow them consistently.
Aside from these topical measures, you must also eat a healthy, well-balanced diet that is full of immunity-boosting foods such as citrus fruits that are loaded with vitamin C.
The stronger your immunity, the lesser your chance of contracting an infection. Besides, good-quality nutritious intake can help strengthen and repair your nails. Always conduct a weekly examination of your toes and fingernails for signs of infection, and seek prompt medical advice from a podiatrist if you notice anything off.