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Yellow Toenails

Dr. Tracy Reed

Reviewed by
Dr. Tracy Reed

Yellow toenails can be caused by various conditions and diseases, but they can also be caused by personal habits. For example, if you paint your toenails red, yellow, or orange, your nail may be stained after you try to remove the polish. However, in most cases yellow toenails are an indication of a more serious problem such as a fungal infection (the most common cause), diabetes, yellow nail syndrome, or lymphedema (chronic leg swelling).

It is very important to pay attention to your toenails, as they are the storytellers of our body’s health. At the first sign of discoloration you should seek medical attention from a podiatrist or foot doctor. This way the cause can be determined and treatment can begin promptly, before the problem worsens. Yellow toenails can affect anyone, but most people who experience this condition are between the ages of 20–70. Athletes of all ages are also susceptible to toenail problems, including discoloration.

Yellow Toenail Symptoms

Yellow toenails are usually accompanied by additional symptoms. These symptoms are great indicators of the actual cause of the discoloration. Sometimes there will be a thickening of the nail, and it will have a raised appearance. Occasionally, the nail will become brittle and weak and begin to crumble or flake. Sometimes all the toenails turn yellow; other times only one or two may turn color.

Yellow Toenails

What Causes Yellow Toenails?

In most cases, yellow toenails are the result of toenail fungus. Fungal infections in the nails are typically caused by personal habits such as wearing shoes made of non-breathable materials that allow sweat to mix with bacteria. Other causes include walking barefoot in wet, public places or not allowing your toenails to air out. Fungi love warm, moist, dark places such as close-toed shoes. Additional causes of yellow toenails include:

  • Applying and/or removing toenail polish
  • Diabetes, circulation problems or weakened immune systems
  • Yellow nail syndrome (genetic disorder)
  • Brittle or weak toenails
  • Lymphedema

You may also make yourself more susceptible to fungal infections and yellow toenails if you take part in athletic activities. Athletes spend lots of time, typically in one pair of shoes, performing repetitive movements like starting and stopping, jumping, and running. Each of these activities can make your toes vulnerable to trauma. Wearing the same shoes every day, especially if you sweat excessively and do not allow your shoes to air out between uses, can promote fungal and bacterial infections, which can lead to discolored toenails.

Yellow Toenails vs. Yellow Nail Syndrome

Yellow toenails should be taken seriously and checked out by a podiatrist, but they should not be confused with a rare genetic disorder called Yellow Nail Syndrome. A person with yellow nail syndrome has marked thickening and yellow to yellow-greenish discolorations of the nails. Plus, most patients who develop yellow nail syndrome have pleural effusions (excess fluid in the space that surrounds the lungs and compromises breathing), a systemic disease such as lymphedema (localized fluid retention and tissue swelling), and yellow, dystrophic nails (nails that did not develop properly). In most cases, the person with yellow toenails has a fungal infection, not Yellow Nail Syndrome.

Yellow Toenails Treatment

The best way to return your toenails to their natural color will depend on the cause of the discoloration. If your nails are stained from polish, you may have to wait until the nail grows out to restore the natural color. If the discoloration is being caused by an underlying condition such as diabetes, you may need to gain control over your condition to see improvements in other parts of your body.

If you have an infection, there are several treatment options available. Your doctor or podiatrist will determine the proper treatment method for you based on the severity and extent of the infection. For milder infections, he or she may prescribe a medicated polish containing the ingredient cicloprox. You apply the polish yourself daily for about six to nine months, until the infection is gone, which takes about a year. If the infection is more severe, your doctor may offer you oral antifungal medication such as Sporanox or Lamisil. If these treatment methods fail, your doctor may consider a surgical removal of your yellow, infected toenail. This is usually done if the patient can no longer walk around or function on the toe. Typically, removing the infected nail allows a new nail to grow in, but this process may take up to a year. Also, keep in mind that yellow toenails usually do not go away on their own.

Nail gels can be effective in treating mild cases of yellow toenails. Mycocide NS and Nonyx Nail Gel are two popular products. Mycocide NS is a clinically tested antimicrobial solution that penetrates the nail and kills the germs causing the infection. This product should be applied twice daily for up to six months for toenails. Nonyx Nail Gel is a popular product recommended by podiatrists. It is known to break down and clean up the build-up underneath the nail. It penetrates the nail plate and lowers the pH levels while promoting a healthy environment for new nails to grow in. The effectiveness of these two gels increases with regular supervision by your podiatrist.

Some treatment medications are known to cause side effects, and some contain only one or two key natural ingredients. But there is one product on the market that is said to cause no side effects. Zetaclear contains several key natural ingredients including tea tree oil, jojoba oil, lavender oil, and clove oil. Each of these ingredients has anti-fungal and/or soothing properties. Talk with your doctor about the side effects of specific medications, and ask them which products they recommend most for you.

Preventing Yellow Toenails

Here are some tips to help you prevent yellow toenails:

  • Always wear clean socks
  • Always wear shoes that are made of breathable materials.
  • During treatment, follow your doctor’s instructions completely.
  • Avoid walking barefoot in areas that are public and damp.
  • Avoid coming into contact with anyone with a fungal infection.
  • Avoid sharing towels, bathmats and clothes while having or healing from a fungal infection or if someone else has a fungal infection.
  • Clean and dry your feet and toes thoroughly and daily.
  • Talk with your doctor about all possible treatment methods before using the product.
  • Talk with your doctor at the first sign of discoloration.
  • Maintain proper foot and toenail hygiene.
  • Never cut your nails too short, and always cut them straight across.

If you have yellow toenails or a toenail fungus, there are several things you can do to prevent the infection from spreading to others. Never share towels or walk around barefoot in areas that others may come into contact with. Always wear shoes or sandals in public showers, locker rooms, health spas, and gyms. If possible, avoid swimming pools and swimming pool areas where others may be walking around barefoot. At the first sign of an infection, contact a podiatrist about treatment options, including over-the-counter products that may benefit you.

Talking to Your Doctor

Here are some questions you may want to ask your doctor about yellow toenails:

  • What type of fungus caused my yellow toenails?
  • How long should I wait before resuming my normal activities — for example, swimming, working out in gyms, or participating in team sports?
  • How severe is my condition?
  • What additional symptoms should I watch for that may indicate treatment is not working? How long should I wait to contact you about this?
  • Can you examine my shoes and tell me if they are adequate for my activities? (bring in two or three pairs of commonly worn shoes if possible)
  • How can I prevent passing it on to family members whith whom I share a shower or tub with?
  • Which over-the-counter products do you recommend? Which do you not recommend?
  • What side effects are associated with the treatment we are going to use?
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Medical References:

  1. Cosmopolitan Newsmagazine, Yellow Toe Nails, http://www.cosmopolitan.com/hairstyles-beauty/how-to/yucky-yellow-toenails
  2. Health Guidance, Yellow Toenails are Usually a Sign of Trouble, http://www.healthguidance.org/entry/5949/1/Yellow-Toenails-Are-Usually-A-Sign-Of-Trouble.html

This page was last updated on December 17th, 2014



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