Healthy toenails are smooth, translucent, or pink, without any pits. Nails are made up of keratin (a protein) and comprise various parts, such as nail bed, nail plate, nail folds, cuticle, and lunula.
Yellow toenails are typically caused by a fungal infection called onychomycosis. Rarely, it can infect fingernails. This fungus causes the toenail to appear thick, yellowish-brown, become brittle (breaks easily), and distorted, which make them appear ragged.
Home remedies that can help treat yellow toenails include:
- Baking soda: Soak the affected nail in hot water mixed with baking soda. Make sure the water is warm and not too hot. This treatment is not recommended in people with diabetes (who are susceptible to burns due to undetected diabetic neuropathies).
- Vitamin E: Include a good amount of foods rich in vitamin E, such as sunflower or soybean oil, almonds, peanuts, spinach, pumpkin, and sunflower seeds.
- Over-the-counter antifungal nail creams or powders: Constant use may prevent the spread and growth of the fungus.
- Oils: Apply oil such as the following to the infected nail multiple times a day
- Olive oil leaf extract
- Coconut oil
- Tea tree oil
Thick yellow toenails can be prevented using certain preventive measures, such as:
- Wear shoes in pools or any other areas of wetness
- Sweat-absorbing socks can prevent the growth of fungus
- Clean and wash the feet regularly
- Pat dry the toenails after a shower
- Trim toenails often and keep the edges smooth
- Avoid walking barefoot in locker rooms or public showers
- Topical treatments, such as antifungal ointments, help stop further spread of infection
What does it mean when your toenails are yellow?
Fungal infections are common in toenails due to the moist and warm environment present around feet. Yellow toenails could be caused by cheap nail paints or nail paint removers.
Dermatophytes, yeasts, molds, and other fungi can cause toenail infections, giving them unpleasant odors.
Very rarely, yellow toenails can be a sign of a disease called yellow nail syndrome, characterized by a triad of thickened yellow nails, primary lymphedema, and respiratory manifestations.
A fungal toenail infection is more likely to develop due to:
- Athlete’s foot (ringworm of the foot)
- Occupational exposure to wet areas
- Weak immunity caused by the human immunodeficiency virus
- Wear occlusive footwear
- Diseases, such as diabetes and psoriasis
- Repeated nail injuries
- Hyperhidrosis (abnormal excessive sweating)
- Poor blood circulation due to peripheral vascular disease or autoimmune diseases
When to see a doctor
Mild infections can be treated using home remedies and over-the-counter antifungal medications. However, despite all measures, if the toenails continue to remain discolored and deformed, seek advice from a healthcare provider.
In case of bleeding, swelling, and pain in the toenails, if a person suffers from diabetes or psoriasis or the infection seems to be spreading, an immediate appointment with the doctor is necessary to rule out diabetic foot ulcers and gangrene.
Doctors can best analyze the reason for infection and decide a treatment plan accordingly, which may include oral or topical antifungal medications, such as terbinafine, itraconazole, and fluconazole, or removal of the affected nail.
How are yellow toenails diagnosed?
The doctor will examine the affected nail, ask questions about the symptoms, and confirm the diagnosis via a fungal culture.
- (A nail clip sample will be sent to a laboratory to be visualized under a microscope.)
Tosti A. Onychomycosis. Medscape. https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/1105828-overview#a3
American Family Physician. Treating Onychomycosis. https://www.aafp.org/afp/2001/0215/p663.html
Elewski BE. Onychomycosis: pathogenesis, diagnosis, and management. Clin Microbiol Rev. 1998;11(3):415-429. doi:10.1128/CMR.11.3.415
Cleveland Clinic. Toenail Fungus. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/11303-toenail-fungus
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