Fungal nail infections, a condition known as onychomycosis, is common in the general population but rare in children. As many as 45% of adults may suffer from the condition, but only 1% of children do. An infection can occur in any nail, but it is more common in toenails than in fingernails.
Fungus grows in warm, wet areas, and it is especially common for fungus to infect skin on the feet. Nail infections can occur if the fungus is untreated and spreads from the skin to the nail. Nail infections in children are often spread from family members by sharing items where the fungus can survive such as towels or nail clippers. Children can also catch fungus from walking barefoot on warm, wet floors where fungus can grow. Because children's immune systems are less mature, they may have more difficulty fighting off the infection.
Three types of fungus can infect nails: dermatophytes, yeasts and non-dermatophyte moulds. Most nail fungal infections are caused by dermatophytes. Some fungal nail infections have a genetic component; there is an inherited tendency toward nail infections that causes them to be more common in some families.
Symptoms of fungal nail infection are not visible until some time after the infection has been present. Indications of a nail infection include thickening or discolouration of the nail, white patches on the nail and separation of the nail from the nail bed. A doctor will confirm the identification of a nail infection by scraping a small specimen of the nail and sending it to a lab for testing. It is best to confirm diagnosis by this lab test, since there are other conditions that look similar but require different treatment.
You can prevent fungal nail infections by keeping nails clean and dry. Have children wear loose, comfortable shoes that allow air flow, along with clean, dry cotton socks. Never let a child walk barefoot in a public bathroom or pool, and do not clip an adult's nails with the same clipper you use for children.
Nail fungus is hard to cure. There are several topical treatments for nail fungus, but they are not always successful. Oral medication is often necessary, but griseofulvin, the only oral medication licensed for use on children, has a relatively low success rate. Alternative treatments such as anti-fungal essential oils (oil of oregano and tea tree oil are two of the most common) and soaking in vinegar are safe for children and are sometimes effective. All treatments require that you use them very regularly, usually for a long period of time, in order to cure the infection.
Different types of fungus respond to different treatments, so if your first attempt at a cure is unsuccessful, it is worthwhile to try a different treatment method. Many people do not treat nail fungus, but it is important to treat as early as possible. The earlier the infection is treated, the easier it is to cure, and leaving a fungus untreated can cause permanent damage to the nail.