If you’ve noticed yellowing, thickening or crumbling of your toenails, you may have a fungal nail infection. Nail fungus is a common condition that can cause cosmetic concerns as well as pain in severe cases.
You may be wondering if simple solutions like swimming in chlorinated pools can kill the fungus and clear up the infection.
If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: chlorine does have antifungal properties, but is generally not strong enough or reliable enough to fully cure a fungal nail infection. However, avoiding reinfection by taking precautions before and after swimming can help prevent the infection from getting worse.
What Causes Toenail Fungus?
Toenail fungus, also known as onychomycosis, is a common nail infection caused by various types of fungi. Understanding the key causes and risk factors can help prevent and properly treat this stubborn condition.
Dermatophytes are a type of fungus that commonly infects toenails. The three main categories of dermatophytes fungi leading to onychomycosis are:
- Trichophyton rubrum – Causes over 90% of toenail fungal infections
- Trichophyton mentagrophytes
- Epidermophyton floccosum
These microscopic organisms thrive in warm, most areas like shoes and socks. Over time, they can infect the nail bed and cause yellowing, thickening, and crumbling of the nail.
Warm, Moist Environments
Fungi requires a warm, moist environment to survive and multiply. The insides of shoes, especially athletic shoes, often provide ideal conditions for fungi growth. Other areas like public pools, locker rooms, and showers are also breeding grounds for fungal spread.
According to the CDC, wearing damp socks and shoes for just 4 hours quadruples your risk of getting athlete’s foot. And over 70% of people diagnosed with athlete’s foot are also likely to develop toenail fungus. Proper hygiene and foot care are crucial to prevention.
While anyone can get nail fungus, the following groups have a higher risk:
- People over 60 years old
- Those with a family history of fungal infections
- Individuals with conditions like diabetes or psoriasis
- Swimmers or athletes who remain in damp gear
- Persons with reduced blood circulation
- People who frequently wear tight-fitting or closed toe shoes
- Individuals with past nail injuries or trauma
- Those with weak immune systems
Evaluating causes and risk factors enables better prevention and faster treatment. With diligent foot hygiene, avoidance of damp environments, prompt treatment of injuries, and regular nail inspections, you can lower fungal infection chances and maintain healthy-looking nails.
Can Chlorine Kill Nail Fungus?
Chlorine does have some antifungal properties that may help kill nail fungus, but there are some limitations to relying solely on swimming pools as a treatment. While chlorine can potentially damage or slow the growth of fungal spores, it does not penetrate deeply enough into the nail bed to fully eliminate an infection.
However, taking some precautions while swimming can help prevent worsening of symptoms or spreading infection to others.
Chlorine’s Antifungal Properties
Chlorine is added to pools in order to kill bacteria and other microorganisms. At the right concentrations, chlorine can also have antifungal effects and damage fungal cell walls and membranes. Some research indicates that chlorine interacts with proteins and enzymes within fungal cells, which prevents growth and replication.
The free chlorine concentration typically recommended for pools is 1-3 ppm (parts per million). At this level, chlorine may be able to penetrate and partially damage superficial fungal spores on the nail surface.
However, it likely does not reach fungal hyphae that have already burrowed deeper into the nail bed.
Limitations of Chlorine Exposure
While brief surface exposure to chlorinated water may help slow the spread of infection, it has some significant limitations as a nail fungus treatment:
- Chlorine does not penetrate deeply into the nail, so cannot kill root infection.
- Exposure in pools is too brief to kill all fungal spores.
- Fungi can build resistance to chlorine over time.
- The warm, moist environment in pools can encourage fungal growth.
Research shows that fungal spores can survive in chlorinated water for up to two weeks. The short, intermittent exposure during swimming is unlikely to fully eliminate nail fungus that has established itself within the nail bed and nail plate.
Precautions For Swimming With Nail Fungus
While chlorine has limited benefits for treating nail fungus, taking some sensible precautions can help avoid making infections worse or spreading them to others:
- Wear flip flops around public pool areas to avoid direct contact between bare feet and floors/surfaces.
- Thoroughly dry feet and nails after swimming – moisture encourages fungal growth.
- Apply a topical antifungal cream after swimming to help limit spread of infection.
- Disinfect or replace shower shoes/flip flops on a regular basis.
- Use a nail brush and antimicrobial soap when washing feet.
With proper hygiene and nail care, most people can safely swim without significantly worsening a mild-moderate nail fungus infection. However, those with severe fungal infections may want to avoid swimming until treatment has had time to take effect.
For persistent or recurring nail fungus, seeking medical treatment is recommended.
Medical Treatments For Nail Fungus
Prescription Anti-Fungal Medications
Prescription oral and topical medications are commonly used treatments for moderate to severe nail fungus infections. Oral antifungal medications like terbinafine (Lamisil) and itraconazole (Sporanox) attack the fungus internally and can lead to a complete cure.
Studies show that terbinafine has a success rate of 70-80% in treating toenail fungus, while itraconazole is effective in about 60-70% of cases (1). These medications must be taken for 6 to 12 weeks to entirely eliminate the fungal infection.
Topical antifungal lacquers like ciclopirox (Penlac) and efinaconazole (Jublia) are brush-on treatments applied to affected nails. According to research, patients using these lacquers for 48 weeks achieved 15.2% to 17.8% clearance of nail fungus (2).
While topical treatments have lower efficacy rates, they cause fewer side effects than oral medications.
Laser treatments use focused beams of light to penetrate the nail and terminate fungal infection. Studies demonstrate that laser therapy resulted in 35% to 95% improvement in nail fungus patients (3). The laser destroys fungal cells by generating heat, while leaving surrounding tissue unharmed.
Most patients require 2 to 4 sessions spaced 4 weeks apart for laser therapy to fully permeate the nail bed.
Research shows that combining laser with oral antifungal therapy enhances success rates above using any single modality. A clinical trial found that patients receiving concurrent laser and itraconazole achieved a 97% cure rate for toenail fungus, compared to only 61% clearance using the oral drug alone (4).
This demonstrates the synergy between these two medical treatments.
In severe nail fungus cases, temporary or permanent removal of part or all of the infected nail may be necessary. For a temporary fix, doctors can surgically scrape debris from beneath the nail with a minor procedure called debridement.
Studies indicate that combining debridement with topical antifungal therapy substantially boosts effectiveness over using medications alone (5).
With a permanent nail removal called matricectomy, the entire nail matrix where growth originates is extracted to prevent recurrence. Research shows that matricectomy results in an 87% initial cure rate for stubborn nail fungus that has not responded to other treatments (6).
The nail will no longer regrow after removal of the matrix. This option provides reliable elimination of fungal infection in refractory cases when other modalities have failed.
Home Remedies For Fighting Fungus
Tea Tree Oil
Tea tree oil is a natural antifungal that can help treat nail fungus. Studies show it is effective against Candida albicans, the most common cause of fungal nail infections. To use it, dilute tea tree oil with a carrier oil like coconut oil, then apply the mixture to the affected nails once or twice a day.
The antifungal compounds like terpinen-4-ol in tea tree oil can penetrate the nail and kill the fungus. Just be sure to do a patch test first, as tea tree oil can cause skin irritation in some people.
Believe it or not, Vicks VapoRub contains ingredients like camphor and menthol that have antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. Applying a small amount to affected nails 1-2 times per day may help treat fungal infections.
One study found Vicks was effective at killing fungal cultures after 7 days of treatment. However, more research is still needed on its efficacy. Vicks is easy to find and inexpensive, so it’s worth a try. Just know it can take several months of application to see results.
Baking Soda Soaks
Baking soda is a natural home remedy for nail fungus. It can help create an alkaline environment that makes it harder for fungi to thrive. Make a paste by mixing 3 parts baking soda with 1 part water. Apply it to affected nails, let sit for 10 minutes, then rinse.
You can also do a baking soda soak by mixing 4 tablespoons of baking soda in 2 cups of water. Soak nails for 15 minutes daily. The antifungal and exfoliating properties of baking soda may help treat infections after several weeks of use.
Apple Cider Vinegar
Apple cider vinegar is another home remedy option for fungal nail infections. It contains acetic acid that has antifungal effects. You can apply undiluted ACV directly to nails using a dropper or cotton swab once or twice daily.
Or try this recipe: mix equal parts ACV and warm water, then soak nails for 20 minutes. The acidity of the vinegar can help kill fungus while softening the nail. Be sure to rinse nails after soaking to prevent skin irritation. Consistency is key to seeing results.
Treating nail fungus at home with natural remedies can take time and patience. But these methods are affordable and often free from side effects. For best results, try combining a few remedies like tea tree oil and baking soda soaks. And see a doctor if symptoms persist or worsen.
With diligence, you can beat nail fungus without harsh prescription medications!
Preventing Reinfection and Spread
Keep Feet Clean and Dry
One of the best ways to prevent getting nail fungus again or passing it to others is to keep your feet clean and dry (American Academy of Dermatology). Fungi thrive in warm, moist environments. Be sure to thoroughly dry your feet, especially between the toes, after bathing or swimming.
Change socks at least once a day and avoid wearing the same shoes two days in a row to allow them to completely dry out.
Wear Clean Socks and Shoes
Wear clean, breathable socks and shoes that allow air flow and don’t trap moisture (Mayo Clinic). Consider moisture wicking athletic socks which keep feet drier. Discard old socks frequently and wash others in hot water after each use.
Sanitize or replace shoes if a fungal infection occurred while wearing them.
Disinfect Showers and Nail Tools
Fungus on the feet can easily spread to shower floors and nail care tools. Use a hospital grade disinfectant made for fungal control to regularly clean showers after use (CDC). Soak nail files, clippers and pumice stones used on infected nails in rubbing alcohol or a 1:10 bleach solution for an hour between uses to kill lingering fungus and prevent recontamination.
Get Pedicures Cautiously
While professional nail salons may seem like a source of fungal infection, the risk is low if proper sanitation is followed. However, those prone to nail fungus should take extra precautions like bringing their own pedicure tools, using jet-free tubs, verifying equipment sterilization methods and avoiding cuticle cutting that risks infection spread (NAILS Magazine).
Technicians should wash hands before each client and use single-use files and buffers only once.
While chlorine has some ability to kill fungus, it cannot fully cure an existing nail fungus infection. However, taking precautions before and after swimming can help prevent the condition from getting worse.
For clearing up stubborn fungal nail infections, medical treatments or consistent home care are more reliable options. With vigilance and the right treatment plan, it is possible to eradicate nail fungus and prevent its bothersome symptoms from returning.