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Yellow Toenails: What do they Mean?

By Dr. Kristie

Has one of your toenails turned an unsightly shade of yellow? It can be disturbing to look down at your feet during sandal season and catch a glimpse of yellow toenails. What causes this phenomenon and what can you do about it?

There are several reasons why you may develop yellow toenails, but the most common is a fungal infection of the nail. If a fungus is the cause, your toenails may appear thicker, have streaks of discoloration, and may appear more brittle. Although some nail polishes contain a chemical can cause a yellowing of the nail, this is a less common cause.

If you’re unable to scrape off the yellow color with a nail file, chances are you’ll dealing with a fungus. To confirm this diagnosis, it’s always wise to get the opinion of your family doctor or podiatrist before attempting self treatment.

What causes fungal infections of the toenail bed?

If you spend any time in warm, humid public places such as the locker room of your local gym, you’re at a higher risk of a fungal nail infection. Fungi thrive in these warm, moist environments.

You also increase the risk when you allow your feet to get damp by wearing sweaty socks or not drying your feet thoroughly after exposure to moisture. Wearing tight fitting shoes can also cause the feet to sweat which creates a good environment for fungi to grow and create thick yellow toenails.

What should you do for treatment of yellow toenails?

Don’t be tempted to just cover up the problem with nail polish. This can make the problem worse by sealing in the fungus. If the fungal infection is allowed to continue untreated, you can end up losing the entire toenail.

Plus, you can also spread the infection to other people if you share towels or foot apparel. The best solution is to see your doctor for treatment.

The treatment of yellow toenails due to fungal infection usually involves trimming away as much of the affected toenail as possible. Your doctor will send a sample to the lab to confirm that the cause is fungal.

He may initially offer you a medicated nail polish to treat the infection. This may be effective in some cases, while other more advanced cases will require an oral medication.

It’s usually best to try the medicated nail polish first since the oral anti-fungal can sometimes cause elevated liver enzymes. Occasionally, brittle yellow toenails can be associated with diabetes which is why it’s important not to try home treatment.


To prevent future yellow toenails, keep your shoes and socks as dry as possible, avoid wearing tight fitting shoes, and wear flip flops or sandals when at the pool or in the locker room of your health club. 

About the Author

She is a Medical Doctor with a concentration in Family Practice. She also has an undergraduate degree in both Biology and Psychology and masters in Clinical Pathology.

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