This article appears in the Health Living fall 2017 magazine.

After noticing the signs of nail fungus, many people want to hide it. That’s a mistake, because while nail fungus is unsightly, treatment can help prevent the infection from spreading and causing more damage to your nails.

Covering up nail fungus with polish or artificial nails will not get rid of the problem, said board-certified dermatologist Dr. Shari Lipner, an assistant professor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York.

“Although nail fungus is the most common nail disorder that dermatologists treat, not every nail problem is caused by fungus, and there are several other conditions that may look similar, including nail psoriasis and nail trauma,” Lipner said.

Have your nails checked by your doctor before starting any treatment.

“It’s especially important to seek treatment for nail conditions if you have underlying medical issues, such as diabetes, poor circulation or a weakened immune system,” Lipner said.

For some people nail fungus is a cosmetic or aesthetic problem. For others, it can be more serious.

“If you do have a fungal infection and let it go unchecked, the symptoms could worsen, possibly causing pain or interfering with your everyday activities,” Lipner said.

What it looks like

Early signs of nail fungus may include the lifting of the nail off the skin and yellow or white discoloration. As the infection spreads, the nails may become thicker, difficult to cut and increasingly discolored, or they may become thinner, prone to crumbling and splitting.

The best way to treat nail fungus is to avoid getting it in the first place. Lipner suggests:

— If you get a manicure or pedicure at a salon, make sure the staff sterilizes its equipment. Don’t shave your legs for at least 24 hours before a pedicure, as this may cause nicks and breaks in the skin that could lead to infection.

— Because fungus can thrive in warm, moist environments, wear breathable socks and use flip-flops at public pools, gyms, locker rooms and showers.

— If you notice symptoms of a fungal infection in any of your nails or your feet (itchiness, cracked or flaky skin), see a board-certified dermatologist for diagnosis and treatment to prevent the disease from spreading onto other nails or to other members of your household.

Diagnosis and treatment

Dermatologists can perform a variety of tests to confirm the presence of nail fungus, including a new technique that uses molecular biology to identify the exact organisms causing the infection.

Once diagnosed, the condition can be treated with oral or topical medications. While oral medication has high success rates, it may cause significant side effects or interact with other drugs.

Newer topical formulas developed in recent years are proving more effective, and topical treatments may be better suited to patients with certain underlying medical conditions or those on multiple medications.

Researchers are looking into laser procedures, currently only approved by the Food and Drug Administration for cosmetic improvement of nail fungus, as well as a non-thermal plasma device as an additional treatment option. “While we can’t currently recommend laser and device procedures as first-line treatments for nail fungus, they do hold promise for the future,” Lipner said.