Toenail problems: How your toenails change as you age

Oct 28, 2019
As you get older, the colour, thickness and shape of your toenails tends to change. Source: Getty

It’s easy to neglect your toenails but, as you get older, the colour, thickness and shape of your nails tend to change. Toenails in particular have a tendency to become more brittle, while ingrown toenails and discolouration also become more prevalent with age.

But learning about the symptoms of and causes for common toenail problems can keep your toenails healthy, strong and in tip-top shape.

Ingrown toenails

An ingrown toenail may seem like a minor thing, but they sure hurt! When inflamed, they can make it extremely difficult to walk and usually require a GP to surgically remove the nail from causing further damage to the skin of the toe.

In most cases, ingrown toenails are caused by cutting your toenails too short. If they’re cut too short, it can cause the skin to grow over the nail then, as the nail grows, it digs into the skin.

Cutting is not the only reason people develop them, however. If you regularly wear tight shoes, you’re adding pressure on the skin around the toenail and possibly pushing it against the sharp edges of your toenails.

It’s also common for people to develop an ingrown nail after an injury to the toe. For example, if you accidentally drop something on your toe, stub it or participate in activities where the toes are subject to constant pressure such as running, it’s likely for the nail to be impacted.

As a result, just touching the ingrown toenail can be very painful, while the nail and the skin around it can become raised, red and infected. Fluid typically builds up in the toe and it’s not uncommon to notice pus forming in the area.

It’s always important to try and avoid infection where possible, but sometimes, the nail has to be removed in order to clear up the irritation. That can be done via two methods. Doctors will either remove part of the nail (a partial nail avulsion), or remove the whole nail (a total nail avulsion).

Toenail fungus

There is no getting around it – toenail fungus is not pretty. It’s an infection that gets through cracks in your nails or skin and it can make your toenails change colour or thicken. Brittle, crumbly or ragged nails are also common signs of fungal infections. While toenail fungus can affect people of all ages, it’s more common in older adults.

Fungal infections breed in damp conditions such as a sweaty sock or tight shoe. So to ensure you don’t pick up any unwanted bacteria, dry your feet thoroughly and ensure you have nice loose shoes and clean socks.

However, if you have one, there are a range of over-the-counter treatments available in chemists and supermarkets. Alternatively, some home remedies may help treat toenail fungus. For example, apple cider vinegar can not only prevent the fungus from spreading but it can kill the bacteria causing the fungus in the first place.

Discolouration

It’s not uncommon for toenails to turn a light shade of yellow with age – nail discolouration is a normal part of the ageing process. However certain medical conditions, such as diabetes, poor circulation and heart disease, can also cause your toenails to change colour. Meanwhile, excessive use of nail polish and fungal infections can also lead to discoloured toenails.

If you suffer from discoloured toenails, there are a number home remedies that can help – ranging from soaking the affected nail in hot water mixed with baking soda to applying vinegar to the affected nail.

Black toenails

If you have a black toenail, you’re not alone. This is a common problem, especially as you grow older, however isn’t always caused by stubbing your toe or dropping something on it, though that is the main cause. It is referred to as a subungual hematoma, which simply means there is a collection of blood underneath the nail.

This can not only cause the nail to become discoloured, it also generates pressure, leading to intense pain. In these cases, medical treatment is advised. Black toenails can also be caused by a fungal infection, or in rare cases they may indicate underlying melanoma.

In most cases, the black toenail will eventually fall off and grow back on its own. However, you should make an appointment with a podiatrist if you’re concerned.

Important information: The information provided on this website is of a general nature and information purposes only. It does not take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. It is not personalised health advice and must not be relied upon as such. Before making any decisions about your health or changes to medication, diet and exercise routines you should determine whether the information is appropriate in terms of your particular circumstances and seek advice from a medical professional.

Info & tips to help you stay healthy and enjoy your 60's

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