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Yellow Toenails – Causes, Treatment & Prevention

Dr. Tracy Reed

Reviewed by
Dr. Tracy Reed

Your toenails have turned a golden color and now you are worried. What do you do? Yellow toenails can be caused by various conditions and diseases, but they can also be caused by personal habits and can be cured by medication or surgical removal depending on severity.

For example, if you paint your toenails red, yellow, or orange, your nail may be stained after you try to remove the polish. This is the simplest case where the solution would be to just to wait for the nail to grow out.

However, in most cases it is an indication of a more serious problem such as a fungal infection (the most common cause), diabetes, a nail syndrome, or lymphedema (chronic leg swelling). In these cases anything from prescription fungal cream to surgical removal of the toenails would be required.

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 on the affected toenails can begin promptly, before the problem worsens and any surgical procedure is needed. 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 because of the amount of stress placed on their feet and sweat production.

Yellow Toenail Symptoms To Pay Attention To

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 this color; other times only one or two may change color. The degree of the color may also vary as well.

Yellow Toenails

What Causes Yellow Toenails?

There is a fungus among us! In most cases, yellow toenails are the result of toenail fungus. Bad hygiene is one of the leading causes of fungal infection of the toenails. 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. Wearing old sweaty socks for a long period of time or going barefoot in public areas are also ways of contracting fungus.

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 include:

  • Applying and/or removing toenail polish
  • Diabetes, circulation problems or weakened immune systems
  • A 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 toenails 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. This is why most athletes wear comfortable, breathable shoes and can go through several pairs in a year.

Yellow Toenails vs. Yellow Nail Syndrome

This condition 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 this nail syndrome has marked thickening and yellowish or greenish discolorations of the toenails.

Plus, most patients who develop this 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 dystrophic nails (nails that did not develop properly). In most cases, the person with has a fungal infection, not YNS.

Yellow Toenails Treatment Options For You

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. Toenails discolored by this condition require extreme care because of the underlying cause is severe and harder to control.

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. Treatment can include over the counter medication, prescription topical creams, and even surgical removal for the extreme cases.

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.

Also, keep in mind that this condition usually does not go away on its own.

Nail gels can be effective in treating mild cases.. Mycocide NS and Nonyx Nail Gel are two popular products. These over the counter antifungal topical medications can help in mild cases and also help in prevention of the fungus as well when applied according to the instructions.

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. For anyone looking for

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. Also be aware that no medication is a quick fix that will change the color of your toenails back to normal right away. Patience and applying the medication as instructed is the best way to get rid of the fungus.

If these treatment methods fail, your doctor may consider a surgical removal of your infected toenails. This is usually done if the patient can no longer walk around or loses function of the toe. Typically, removing the infected nail allows a new nail to grow in, but this process may take up to a year.

Can Yellow Toenails Be Prevented?

Yes. Here are some tips for prevention of this condition:

  • Always wear clean socks
  • Always wear shoes that are made of breathable materials.
  • If shoes become wet, be sure to dry them properly before wearing
  • Wash your feet often, especially during hot or humid days when sweat can build up easily.
  • 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. Keep toenails well trimmed and cleaned.
  • Never cut your nails too short, and always cut them straight across.

If you have yellowish 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. This will help prevent fungal infection and other serious conditions as well. 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:

  • 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?

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 1st, 2017



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