The most common fungal nail disorder seen in clinical practice—called onychomycosis (on-ih-koh-my-KOH-sis)—is a fungal infection of the nails that causes discoloration, thickening of the nail, and separation of the nail from the nail bed.
In this article, we will explore how to use red light therapy for nail fungus a.k.a onychomycosis. We will also discuss other nail fungal infections as well. An effective alternative to traditional treatments, red light shows potential to offer relief.
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What Causes Nail Fungus?
Sometimes painful and always unsightly, fungal nail infections are not conditions to be left untreated. Toenail onychomycosis does not go away on its own and must be treated to avoid secondary infections, permanent nail damage, and possibly loss of the nail.
Sometimes, nail fungus infects the cells that make up the nail bed (also known as the matrix), which is the area where the nails start to grow. The matrix creates new cells that push out the old, dead cells, meaning the nails being trimmed are actually dead.
Any injury or infection of the nail bed can affect nail growth in the future. Once the cells manufacturing the toenail are infected, you may end up with permanently disfigured toenails.
On the plus side, fungal nail infections are not as contagious from person to person as athlete’s foot and other fungal infections that primarily affect the skin. Fungal infections can, however, spread to other toes, fingernails, and the skin on the feet and hands.
Although anyone may develop toenail onychomycosis, the risk markedly increases with age. According to physicians Dyanne P. Westerberg and Michael J. Voyack, the disorder occurs in 10 percent of the general population, 20 percent of individuals 60+ years, and 50 percent of people 70+ years. Another risk factor is a previous bout with athlete’s foot since the two infections are often caused by the same type of fungus.
Onychomycosis is caused by various organisms, most commonly by fungi called dermatophytes. When it affects the areas between the toes and other areas of the feet, it's called athlete's foot. These are the same fungi that cause ringworm and jock itch.
There are several other types of nail fungi:
- White superficial onychomycosis, a milder and more easily treated fungus
- Candida onychomycosis, a relatively uncommon type of yeast infection that affects the toenails
- Proximal subungual onychomycosis, which occurs in people infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and patients with pancreatitis
Nail Fungus Treatment Challenges
Depending on the type of fungal infection, your doctor may have prescribed a topical cream applied to the nail that must be applied once or twice a day; a topical medicated nail polish; oral antifungal medicines; or laser treatment, which removes damaged parts of the nail and/or skin. Light therapy for fungal infection can be used alongside physician's prescribed cream or medicine for an effective recovery.
As you may have learned first-hand, though, fungal infections are easily hidden and notoriously hard to treat. There are several reasons for this:
- Feet naturally provide a moist, warm, and dark environment that fungi thrive in. Unless great care is taken to keep feet dry and aired out (with proper socks and footwear), there’s always a chance that a well-hidden fungus can multiply and thrive.
- As you age, toenails can become drier and develop cracks where the fungus can hide.
- Toenail fungus can get into the layers of keratin that make up the toenail, which offers an even more secure hiding place than toenail cracks.
- The fungus can even grow underneath the toenail, where topical antifungal agents can’t reach.
Nail fungus is more prevalent in toes than fingers for two important reasons that are not addressed by traditional treatments:
- Toes have less blood flow, which makes it more difficult for the body’s immune system to detect an infection and send resources to stop it.
- Nail fungus infections are more common as you age. An aging immune system may not have the ability to fight off fungi, especially in individuals with various health complications that are keeping their immune systems busy.
Conventional treatment options typically take a long time to yield results. Depending on the type of fungus, you could be looking at a 3- to 12-month treatment before seeing any evidence of a healthy new nail growing in.
Over-the-counter medical treatments are available but are typically not very effective. Prescription anti-fungal infections can carry dangerous side effects like liver damage. Also, many anti-fungal drugs have serious negative interactions with certain medicines.
Even opting for the relatively safe laser treatment, which removes the dead tissue, does not necessarily guarantee that the fungi will be destroyed. And, laser therapy for toenail fungus is expensive, ongoing, and not typically covered by insurance.
The bottom line is, conventional toenail fungus treatments don't always eradicate the problem; and at some point, with the right conditions, the infection often returns.
So what else can you do? If you are looking for a natural, safe, and side-effect-free treatment, you’ll want to check out red light therapy for fungal infections.
Red Light: An Ally Against Fungal Nail Infections
Researchers have successfully used infrared laser treatment for onychomycosis infections. The treatment, called photodynamic antimicrobial chemotherapy (PACT), involves a combination of photosensitizing drugs and specific wavelengths of visible light. These wavelengths fall between 600 nanometers (nm) and 690nm, which is within the red light spectrum.
What researchers have discovered is that the combination of light and photosensitizing drugs causes the destruction of microbial cells. Most intriguing is that the treatment selectively targets problematic cells, leaving the surrounding cells alive and healthy.
Scientists have known about this potent combination for over a century, but with the rise in antibiotic-resistant pathogens, PACT is receiving much more attention in recent years.
PACT appears to be particularly effective against fungi, although very few studies have been published on the antifungal applications of photodynamic therapy. As researchers from the Queen's University Belfast, UK School of Pharmacy explain in a 2008 article in Microbial Research:
“In spite of the success of cell culture investigations, only a very small number of in vivo animal and human trials have been published. Photodynamic therapy has the potential to evolve into a useful treatment for difficult to eradicate fungal infections of accessible regions of the body.”
How Does PACT Work?
PACT kills fungi by causing severe oxidative damage to fungal cells. Light photons of a specific wavelength interact with intracellular photosensitizing molecules that are applied as a dye to the cell wall of fungal cells. This dye is harmless to human cells but makes the fungal cells hypersensitive to a specific wavelength of light.
Once the light absorbs into the tissue and interacts with photosensitive molecules in the dye, this interaction causes the production of free radicals, which cause irreversible cellular damage in the targeted fungal cells—but pose no danger to human cells.
As an antifungal, PACT is considered an emerging science. Most research has focused on lasers; however, high-powered LED light sources offer the necessary light power output to ensure enough light photons will absorb into the toenail as well as the tissue around and under it.
A 2004 study of nine patients with a condition known as interdigital mycosis, which is infections between the toes caused by dermatophytes, yeasts, or bacteria, revealed that topical delivery of a specific acid called 5‐aminolevulinic acid, along with red light, led to recovery in six out of nine patients after one to four treatments. Since there were no follow-up treatments, researchers noted the recurrence of infection after four weeks in fewer than half of the patients.
The treatment holds promise as a long-term, ongoing solution to fungal nail infections, and it does not appear to spark mutations in the fungi or the creation of drug‐resistant strains.
Currently, PACT treatment is available from a select few specialized medical professionals. You may need several treatments, and results won’t be evident until the nail grows out—about three months.
Phototherapy for Nail Fungus: Can It Be Used to Treat Fungal Nail Infections at Home?
The answer to this question is … it’s complicated.
We recommend that you treat onychomycosis by a medical professional since the photosensitizing chemicals used in PACT are not available to the public.
Red light therapy can, however, support healing from the inside out: helping your body fight off fungal infections and stimulating the growth of healthy nails and skin.
Red Light Therapy: Healing at the Cellular Level
Red light has a powerful stimulating effect on your body’s cells, circulatory system, immune system, and collagen production.
When considering energy, we typically think of food that is converted into glucose and eventually becomes cellular fuel. But if cells are struggling, if they are busy combating inflammation or other less obvious stressors, they don’t have the energy to perform their functions. Their mitochondria, which are microscopic power generators inside cells, can’t effectively convert raw materials into energy.
When cells are depleted, they can’t replicate effectively or protect themselves from pathogens, and they struggle to perform their specialized functions.
Red and near-infrared (NIR) light activates light-sensitive chromophores in cells. This, in turn, stimulates the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the primary fuel of human cells.
In 2015, Andrei Sommer, a researcher from the University of Ulm, Germany, identified the mechanism by which red light stimulates ATP production. He found that when light interacts with water within a cell, the distance between each water molecule increases, making the water “thinner” or less viscous. This allows the mitochondria within each cell to spin faster, thereby generating more ATP.
Fungal infections could be worsened by Peripheral Artery Disease, in which poor blood flow results in poor circulation and abnormally slow nail growth. Even if you don’t suffer from this disorder, good health—and the ability to fight off pathogens—relies on an efficient cardiovascular system that delivers oxygen and nutrients to cells, and removes waste products via the lymphatic system.
According to a 2017 scientific paper by a team of researchers from Austria, red light promotes the production of endothelial cells, which make up the micro-capillaries near the surface of the skin.
This is important because an increase in capillaries would directly affect blood flow to the nail matrix in the toes, thereby stimulating nail growth.
When the body is faced with invading pathogens, whether they’re fungi, viruses, or bacteria, its response is acute (short-term) inflammation, as cells involved in the immune response rush to the site. Redness, tenderness, and swelling are all typical signs that the body’s inflammatory response is working as it should.
But if inflammation persists and becomes chronic, it can damage cells.
According to a 2017 scientific paper, by Michael Hamblin, one of the world’s foremost experts on red light therapy, many conditions that are highly responsive to red light are rooted in inflammation. Reducing inflammation helps reduce oxidative stress in cells, which allows them to function properly and sharpens their self-defense against pathogens.
Collagen and Keratin Production
Regrowing normal toenails is an important part of the treatment process. You want the toenails, and the skin around them, to grow back strong and supple (free of cracks) so that any lingering fungi don’t have a hospitable place to establish themselves and replicate.
Red light therapy is perhaps best known for its collagen-boosting properties, which is why it is widely used to improve skin tone and reduce the signs of aging. Collagen is a protein present throughout the body; its close cousin keratin is what makes up hair and nails.
Red light therapy stimulates the production of fibroblasts, which are the cells in connective tissue that produce collagen and other fibers. Increasing production of these cells means faster recovery of normal nails and surrounding skin once the fungal infection has been eliminated.
We recommend you get medical treatment for nail fungal infections. But you can potentially accelerate the healing process using light therapy for toenail fungus by stimulating your body’s natural defenses and healing mechanisms. In addition, you may see a reduction in inflammation, faster wound healing, and faster regrowth of normal toenails and skin.
Steps to Help Prevent Onychomycosis
In the case of toenail fungus, prevention is better than cure. Once you have onychomycosis, however, here are steps you can take to make your feet inhospitable to various fungi.
- Keep your feet as dry as possible by choosing the right socks. Seriously consider wool socks, which have come a long way in recent years. They are no longer itchy, come in different thicknesses for each season, and thanks to their wicking abilities, will keep your feet much drier than cotton socks.
- Don’t walk barefoot in swimming pool areas, saunas, or locker rooms.
- Keep your toenails trimmed short; right after a shower, when your nails are soft, is a great time to trim them.
- Wash your feet often with soap and water and be sure to dry them well, especially between the toes.
- Do not cover up discolored nails with nail polish. This helps seal in moisture, in which fungi thrive.
- Disinfect your shower or bathtub floor frequently.
- Wear well-fitting shoes that give your toes plenty of room to spread out.
- Wear shoes that are made of a material that allows for airflow, like canvas or mesh. In summer, wear sandals to allow the feet to stay dry.
- Since certain wavelengths of sunlight are known to be anti-microbial, expose your bare feet to sunlight for a few minutes each day—but do this in moderation to avoid sunburn.
- Treat cuts and other wounds quickly, since fungi can enter the body through open wounds.
- Regularly rotate your shoes, allowing them to dry and air out thoroughly.
- Wash socks in hot water to kill fungi and bacteria.
- To reduce reinfection, wear silver-impregnated socks, which have tiny particles of silver woven into the fabric.
Support Your Body with Red Light to Fight Onychomycosis
Red light therapy for nail fungus is a viable complementary therapy for conventional antifungal treatments. It supports your body in fighting off the infection and in accelerating normal skin and nail growth.
You can treat yourself at home using high-quality LED panels that deliver both red and NIR light, which will offer you skin-deep and deep-tissue support.
PlatinumLED Bio and BIOMAX Series panels are the most powerful LED red light therapy devices on the market. With dozens of clinically proven applications for red and NIR light, you can boost your overall health while treating localized conditions such as nail fungus.
Frequently Asked Question
Q. Can UV light kill toenail fungus?
Ans: Topical application of germicidal ultraviolet (UV) C radiation to treat toenail fungus is found to be effective. However, it is never advised to try to treat toenail fungus solely by oneself.