Yellow Toenails – Cause And Treatment

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Scroll down and take a look at the images below. If your yellow toenails look similar, then you are suffering from a nail fungus infection. In early stages you are unlikely to experience any negative physical symptoms – just ugly looking yellow toenails. But if the disease is left to progress it will spread to affect the entire nail, and may eventually cause the nail to detach from the nail base. In advanced stages the infection can interfere with walking and exercising.

What causes yellow toenails?

The infection is identified as Onychomycosis in the medical community. It is a very common nail disorder caused by a dermatophyte fungus that feeds on the keratin – the the tough protein present in toenails and the toenail bed. While fingernails can be affected, Onychomycosis is far more likely to occur in the toenails, and especially the big toe.  This is because toenails are often in socks and shoes creating the dark, warm, moist environment in which fungal infections can thrive. Studies report that the infection is rare in children but affects around 6-10% of the adult population. The most obvious symptom is a yellow toenail but the nail can also thicken and lose texture, becoming brittle.

Thick yellow toenails

yellow toenails

Onychomycosis has a number of subtypes with Distal Lateral Subungal Onychomycosis being the most common. Here the fungus spreads from the skin and enters the nail via the hyponychium (see image below). Yellow streaks and marks appear as the fungus spreads towards the proximal fold and cuticle.

yellow toenail

Risk factors

The diseases is very contagious spreading from direct or indirect contact. Below we list some of the most common ways of contracting a nail fungus infection:

  • Cross-infection from Athletes foot or toe fungus which is caused by the same dermatophyte fungus. See more on toe fungus treatment.
  • Sharing towels, socks or shoes with an infected person.
  • Not washing after sports or activities that include skin-to-skin contact.
  • Wearing the same shoes day-in-day-out without alternating.
  • Having a manicure or pedicure at a nail salon that does not properly sterilize their instruments.
  • Walking around barefoot in public environments that are moist, damp and airless such as public showers or locker rooms.
  • Not allowing the feet to “breathe” or air to circulate around the toes for at least a few hours each day.
  • Not drying the feet thoroughly before putting on socks or shoes.
  • Wearing synthetic socks and shoes (e.g plastic shoes).
  • Not changing out of sweaty socks and shoes after exercising.

Yellow Toenails Treatment

There are five main lines of treatment for yellow nails caused by fungal infection. But most sufferers decide on a topical treatment approach as the alternatives are associated with side effects, or are untested (see below). But before making a decision, its a good idea to seek the advice of a qualified health professional. Your doctor will also be able to test a scraping from your yellow toenails and provide a definite diagnosis.

  1. Home remedies such as Listerine, apple cider vinegar and Vicks VapoRub are used by some sufferers to get rid of yellow toenails. These are unlikely to be successful for anything but the mildest of infections. In addition certain popular home remedies, such as vinegar, may simply be causing a bleaching effect, removing some of the yellow discoloration, but not addressing the root cause of the infection.
  2. Recent years have seen the emergence of a number of high quality topical nail treatments that contain powerful antifungal drugs. Two of the most popular are Zetaclear and Funginix. They contain active ingredients which have been clinically proven to destroy the fungus. But the key is to stick to a consistent application that enables the antifungal medication to penetrate the nail and reach the fungus. yellow toenails treatment
  3. Laser treatment for yellow toe nails caused by fungus is a promising field, but still at an early stage of development. The manufactures of laser light instruments claim that the light is able to penetrate into the nail to reach the fungus. More clinical studies are needed. For more information read this article on laser nail fungus treatment.
  4. A wide range of oral antifungal drugs are available on prescription. These are described as “systemic” medications and attack the fungus via the bloodstream. Unfortunately many have been linked to serious side effects including liver damage. Your doctor may recommend a series of parallel blood toxicity tests while you undergo treatment (usually 6-12 weeks) to reduce your risk.
  5. Surgical removal of the affected nail remains an option but is generally only recommended where the infection is causing pain or impaired movement. It is a relatively invasive procedure so usually not the first course of action. A new nail will eventually grow out, but unfortunately recurrence rates are high.

7 Responses to “Yellow Toenails – Cause And Treatment”

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  1. I have had yellow nails at time in my life. It was not fungus but my finger and toe nails were yellow or whitish not that healthy pink hue. my mother used to say it was because of lack of blood and encourage me to eat lot of iron rich green leaves

  2. Mary Glen says:

    Thanks for the comment. I’m pleased you didn’t have a nail fungus Sri Lanka. For more on white spots on nails check out this post:

  3. amanda says:

    i never take my toe nail polish because i always polished them black but i decided to take it off and noticed they were yellow and thick looking is that fungus from the nail polish. and its only the big toes

  4. Mary Glen says:

    Amanda, Thanks for the comment. I would advise showing your discolored toenails to a doctor for a definite diagnosis. The yellow color may be the result of a fungal infection but could also be caused by staining from the dark nail polish that you have been using. You increase the risk of nail polish staining if you have not used a protective base coat. Your doctor should quickly be able to identify the cause of the discoloration as well as rule out other less likely possibilities (such as nail psoriasis or pulmonary disorders).

  5. CommandoHunk25 says:

    Ive had yellow toe nails for about 5years now. My pinkie’s nail doesn’t even look normal anymore. I always knew I had a fungus but I always ignored it, carelessly I now have disgusting smelly yellow toes nails that need treatment. What would you recommend I do? Will I need surgery?

  6. Mary Glen says:

    Thanks for the comment. If you do have a fungal infection, it will not generally clear up without treatment, so it is great that you are not ignoring it any more! I would suggest that you first get a definite diagnosis and discuss treatment options with a qualified health professional. The good news is that there are alternative options to surgery, many of which we discuss on this site.

  7. lauren says:

    Can the sun, cause you to have yellow toenails, when you wear clear nail varnish? Thanks!!

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