Elderly Nail Fungus: Causes and Treatments

Unfortunately, getting old is a risk factor for many diseases. You take more medications, have a weaker immune system, and are more likely to suffer from pre-existing health conditions and mobility issues. This puts you in the high-risk category for many issues, some severe, some simply unpleasant.

Elderly nail fungus is in the latter category. If you’re over the age of 60, you’re at risk for developing nail fungus that can recur multiple times throughout your life. That said, what is it, where does it come from, and how can you treat it and prevent it?

What is Elderly Nail Fungus?

Nail infections are caused by fungal organisms, known as fungi. The most common type are something known as dermatophytes, a word that stems from the Greek meaning “skin” (δέρμα) and “plant” (φυτόν), which somehow manages to be both an innocent and incredibly disgusting image.

Dermatophytes are a broad category of fungi that span around three dozen species. They feed on keratin, which is present in the nails, hair, and skin of animals, including humans. 

If you’ve ever suffered from athlete’s foot (tinea pedis), jock itch (tinea cruris), or ringworm, you’ve experienced the work of these organisms first-hand.

A fungal nail infection can also be caused by types of yeast and mold spores. If the problem persists and requires a visit to the doctor’s office, they may collect a sample and send it off for examination, as understanding what causes the infection is key to eradicating it.

Symptoms to Look Out For

Elderly nail fungus can affect all your nails, but it is much more common in your toenails.

If you have any of the following symptoms in one of your toenails, you may have elderly nail fungus:

  • Discoloration (often a yellowy-brown color)
  • Brittle and damaged nails
  • Distorted, jagged nails
  • A bad smell
  • A very thick nail
  • Dark-colored debris sitting underneath the nail

If you have tried the treatment steps in this guide and they are not working for you, consult your doctor. You may also want to speak with your doctor if you have diabetes or the infection is causing a lot of pain and/or other complications. Generally, it is not a serious issue and it will go away on its own if the right steps are taken, but complications can develop. 

What Causes Elderly Nail Fungus?

Dermatophytes get onto your skin and your nails via direct contact with infected materials (clothes, shoes), animals, people, and even dirt. 

When the nails become brittle and crack, these invasive little organisms enter the nail and the fungus spreads. From there, they can cause complications such as permanent nail damage and more serious infections. Pain and discomfort are also common with elderly nail fungus, not to mention an unsightly nail.

In older adults, nails tend to be brittle and may have more cracks, making it easier for the fungus to get inside. In addition, the immune system is weaker, blood flow is reduced, and the nails regenerate slowly, all of which allows the fungus to spread.

It’s believed that elderly nail fungus is more prevalent in individuals suffering from diabetes, recurring skin conditions, and circulation problems, all of which can hinder the body’s ability to fight the infection.

How to Reduce the Risk of Elderly Nail Fungus

Walking barefoot in gyms, shower rooms, swimming pools, and other communal areas can increase your chances of coming into contact with these fungi, but the same can be said for excessive sweating and even living in a home with several others.

The following tips can prevent infection and reduce the risk of reinfection, which is very common in elderly nail fungus:

  • Always wash your hands after touching an infected nail
  • Wash your feet regularly
  • Moisturize your feet, including the nails
  • Trim your nails and round-off any rough edges. If your nails are infected, make sure you disinfect the clippers after every use
  • Wear shoes that allow your feet to breathe
  • Avoid walking barefoot in communal areas, specifically swimming pools and shower rooms
  • Get your nails manicured and request sterilized equipment
  • Stop using nail polish and wearing fake nails
  • If you’re prone to sweating, change your socks during the day

It’s not just about protecting yourself from fungus. Your caregiver needs to be protected as well, especially if they are elderly themselves and spend their time washing you and caring for you.

Caregivers should wash their hands thoroughly after touching a patient’s feet and clothing. Disposable latex gloves can help as well. 

How to Treat Elderly Nail Fungus

Anti-fungal tablets are often consumed to help with fungal nail infections. The problem is, these can take a long time to work and they also produce a long list of side effects. Unless you have been prescribed these drugs by a doctor and have complications that merit taking them, we recommend trying alternative courses of action first.

You should practice good nail care and hygiene to limit the growth of the fungus and fight its cause. You can use alternative remedies like essential oils to fight the fungus without damaging your skin or nails, some of the treatments often recommended include:

  • Lemon oil
  • Cinnamon oil
  • Tea Tree oil
  • Lemongrass oil
  • Lavender oil
  • Eucalyptus oil

These oils may present with an anti-fungal effect, attacking the root of the infection. They are widely available, relatively cheap, and easy to apply. Furthermore, you don’t have to worry about numerous side effects. Skin irritation is possible and it’s something you should look out for, but these oils are generally well tolerated and can help to clear the problem.

If the problem persists and does not respond to treatment, consult a medical professional. They may prescribe oral treatments or refer you for surgery. Where surgery is concerned, though, the entire nail is often removed and may be prevented from growing back. If not, it can take over a year for the nail to completely return.

Laser treatment has also proven effective at eradicating elderly toenail fungus and is also safe.