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Nail Infection: Should I Take Antifungal Pills?
You may want to have a say in this decision, or you may simply want to follow your doctor's recommendation. Either way, this information will help you understand what your choices are so that you can talk to your doctor about them.
Nail Infection: Should I Take Antifungal Pills?
Get the facts
- Take oral antifungal medicine (antifungal pills) to treat a fungal nail infection.
- Try other treatment, such as antifungal creams, or do nothing.
Key points to remember
- Antifungal pills give you the best chance of curing a severe fungal nail infection.
- If you have liver or heart problems, you should not take antifungal pills. They can cause rare but dangerous side effects, including heart and liver failure.
- You may need testing every 4 to 6 weeks to check for liver, kidney, or heart damage, depending on the antifungal pills you use.
- Even if your treatment works, the infection may return. Of people whose infections go away with antifungal pills, 15% to 20% start to get another infection in the next year.1 This means that out of 100 people who take the pills, 15 to 20 will get another infection in the next year, and 80 to 85 will not.
- Having your nail removed, either nonsurgically or surgically, is another treatment choice for a nail that is badly infected or thickened.
A fungal nail infection occurs when a fungus attacks a fingernail, a toenail, or the skin under the nail, called the nail bed. Fungi (plural of fungus) can attack your nails through small cuts in the skin around your nail or through the opening between your nail and nail bed.
Fungal nail infections are more common in toenails than fingernails. Toenails grow very slowly, giving the fungi more time to develop and get worse. It also takes more time to treat toenails than fingernails.
Yeasts, molds, and different kinds of fungi can cause fungal nail infections. Most are caused by the same type of fungus that causes athlete's foot. Fungi grow best in warm, moist places, and they can spread from person to person. You can get a fungal nail infection from walking barefoot in public showers or pools or from sharing personal items, such as towels and nail clippers. If you have athlete's foot, the fungus can spread from your skin to your nails.
You might use antifungal pills if topical treatments have not worked. A fungal nail infection doesn't go away on its own. And it slowly gets worse over time. An infection may spread into the nail root, where new nail growth begins, and may spread to other nails. The longer you have an infection and the worse it gets, the harder it is to treat.
Severe infections, especially in older people who have had the condition for many years, can cause very thick nails that are hard to trim. They may cause pain or discomfort when you walk. If this happens, it is hard to cure a fungal infection, even with antifungal pills.
Not all fungal nail infections need treatment with pills. Some people decide not to treat a fungal infection until it is uncomfortable or painful.
Nail infections are hard to treat, and antifungal pills can be costly. There is no guarantee that the pills will work or that the infection won't come back. Of people whose infection goes away with antifungal pills, 15% to 20% start to get another infection in the next year.1 This means that out of 100 people who use antifungal pills, 15 to 20 will get another infection in the next year, and 80 to 85 will not.
The pills used to treat fungal nail infections can cause serious side effects, including liver damage and heart failure.
You might think about trying other treatments, such as using an antifungal cream or removing the nail, either surgically or nonsurgically.
Curing the infection with pills doesn't work as well in people who are 65 and older.2
Pills to treat fungal nail infections include terbinafine (Lamisil) and itraconazole (Sporanox). Studies comparing these two medicines found that terbinafine cured the infection in 55 out of 100 people and itraconazole cured the infection in 26 out of 100 people after 16 weeks of treatment.2
Fluconazole (Diflucan), ketoconazole (Nizoral), and griseofulvin (Grifulvin V) are used less often. Fluconazole seems to help, but not as much as terbinafine or itraconazole.2 And ketoconazole and griseofulvin may work, but there is not enough evidence from studies to say just how well they work.3
If you are healthy, an ongoing fungal nail infection has no serious risks. But over time, the nail may get thick and look bad. It may be painful when you wear shoes or walk.
If you have diabetes or a weak immune system, a fungal infection can lead to a more serious bacterial infection.
Your doctor may advise you to use pills if:
- You have a painful nail infection.
- You have another health problem, such as diabetes, that can cause problems from foot infection.
Compare your options
What is usually involved?
What are the benefits?
What are the risks and side effects?
- You take pills every day for several months, or every day for 1 week a month for 2, 3, or 4 months.
- You may need to have blood tests to check that your kidneys and liver are working well.
- Antifungal pills give the best chance of curing a severe fungal nail infection.
- The pills may not work well with other medicines you take, and they could cause problems such as liver damage and heart failure.
- If you have a history of blood or liver disease or you plan to drink alcohol during treatment, these pills are not safe for you.
- Minor side effects include headache, stomach upset, diarrhea, rash, itch, and loss of taste.
- Antifungal pills can be expensive.
- Pills may not work, or the infection may come back.
- Your nail may still look bad after treatment.
Instead, you could:
- Try another treatment, such as an antifungal cream.
- Have the nail removed.
- Do nothing.
- You don't have the risks of taking pills.
- Using creams or removing the nail may clear up your infection, depending on how bad it is.
- Creams may take a long time to work. They will not work as well as pills for a severe infection.
- Your nail infection could get worse, and your nail may fall out.
Personal stories about taking oral antifungal medicine for fungal nail infection
These stories are based on information gathered from health professionals and consumers. They may be helpful as you make important health decisions.
My toenails have always been a little thick and hard to trim, but lately they are starting to really make my feet hurt. I was never sure what the problem was, and now my doctor says it's some type of fungal infection. She says that the medicine may help but that my nail is probably damaged and will never grow back in completely normal. She also mentioned that the medicine is pretty expensive, and that's a concern for me. I'm going to try some other treatment that takes off part of the nail and see if that helps with the pain.
Tom, age 68
I think this fungal toenail infection is the ugliest thing! It's so embarrassing. I always keep my nails trimmed and polished, and this one ugly toenail really bothers me. I asked my doctor about these new medicines, and it sounds like they will work well for me, because the problem is just in one of my nails. I just can't believe how long it's going to take to work!
Tammy, age 35
Taking medicines for almost 3 months to treat something that really doesn't bother me? That doesn't make any sense to me. I have a hard enough time remembering everything I need to do at the office, much less remembering to take a pill every day. If the problem gets any worse, then I'll reconsider. For now, I'll just keep that toenail out of sight.
Bonita, age 40
I will always remember my dad's feet. He had these thick, ugly yellow toenails, and he used to wince when he would walk, because they hurt his feet. My doctor says that I could wind up in the same situation. But since I just got this fungal toenail infection in the last year, if we treat it now, we have a good chance of curing it. I'm going to try this oral medicine that takes several months to work. I'm also going to try all the other things he mentioned, like rotating my shoes so they dry, changing my socks more, and using antifungal foot drying powder. I don't care so much what my feet look like, but I sure don't want them to hurt when I'm older.
Bob, age 60
What matters most to you?
Your personal feelings are just as important as the medical facts. Think about what matters most to you in this decision, and show how you feel about the following statements.
Reasons to take antifungal pills
Reasons not to take antifungal pills
I'm worried about my infection getting worse.
I'm not worried about my infection getting worse.
I'm willing to have regular blood tests to check that my liver and kidneys are okay.
I don't want to be bothered with a lot of tests.
I accept the risk of pills.
Taking these pills is too risky for me.
I don't mind taking pills every day for several months.
I don't want to take pills every day.
My other important reasons:
My other important reasons:
Where are you leaning now?
Now that you've thought about the facts and your feelings, you may have a general idea of where you stand on this decision. Show which way you are leaning right now.
Taking antifungal pills
NOT taking antifungal pills
What else do you need to make your decision?
Check the facts
Do antifungal pills give you the best chance of curing severe fungal nail infections?
- YesYou're right. Antifungal pills give you the best chance of curing a severe fungal nail infection.
- NoSorry, that's not right. Antifungal pills do give you the best chance of curing a severe fungal nail infection.
- I'm not sureIt may help to go back and read "Key points to remember." Antifungal pills give you the best chance of curing a severe nail infection.
Can antifungal pills cause serious side effects?
- YesThat's right. Antifungal pills can cause rare but serious side effects, including liver damage and heart failure.
- NoSorry, that's not right. Antifungal pills can cause rare but serious side effects, including liver damage and heart failure.
- I'm not sureIt may help to go back and read "What are the risks and side effects?" in the "Compare your options" chart. Antifungal pills can cause rare but serious side effects.
Is taking antifungal pills the only way to treat a fungal nail infection?
- YesSorry, that's not right. Having your nail removed, either surgically or nonsurgically, is another treatment option for a severe nail infection.
- NoYou are right. Having your nail removed, either surgically or nonsurgically, is another treatment option for a severe nail infection.
- I'm not sureIt may help to go back and read "Key points to remember." Having your nail removed, either surgically or nonsurgically, is another treatment option for a severe nail infection.
Decide what's next
Do you understand the options available to you?
Are you clear about which benefits and side effects matter most to you?
Do you have enough support and advice from others to make a choice?
How sure do you feel right now about your decision?
Use the following space to list questions, concerns, and next steps.
Here's a record of your answers. You can use it to talk with your doctor or loved ones about your decision.
|Primary Medical Reviewer||Patrice Burgess, MD - Family Medicine|
|Specialist Medical Reviewer||E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine|
- Habif TP, et al. (2011). Tinea of the nails (Onychomycosis). In Skin Disease: Diagnosis and Treatment, 3rd ed., pp. 259–262. Edinburgh: Saunders.
- De Berker D (2009). Fungal nail disease. New England Journal of Medicine, 360(20): 2108–2116.
- Ferrari J (2011). Fungal toenail infections, search date March 2011. BMJ Clinical Evidence. Available online: http://www.clinicalevidence.com.