Toenail Discoloration, Fungus & Treatments

If you’ve noticed a discoloration of your toenails—particularly a yellowish hue—you might be experiencing the signs and symptoms of a toenail fungus infection (onychomycosis). Nail discoloration is one of the first indications you’ve acquired this infection.

Although it isn’t life-threatening, it can certainly take its toll on your personal or social life. Onychomycosis can also be difficult to treat, and clearing it can take time.

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Toenail Fungus Symptoms

Toenail discoloration stemming from a fungal infection may present in a variety of ways, such as:

  • Your toenails have a yellow-brown hue to them.
  • You see white spots on your toenails.
  • Your toenails have become brittle, break easily, and have jagged edges.
  • You notice your toenails are misshapen.
  • Your toenails increase in thickness and become more difficult to trim with standard nail clippers.
  • If dirt and debris accumulate under the nail, the toenail may appear dark.
  • There’s a foul odor emanating from your feet.​

In some instances, toenail fungus doesn’t cause discomfort, though misshapen nails can pose a problem when wearing shoes. In more severe cases of infection, the toenail may loosen from the nail bed or fall off altogether.

Furthermore, a toenail fungal infection can spread to the surrounding skin, causing an uncomfortable, itchy condition known as athlete’s foot.

Causes

Discoloration is often due to a fungal nail infection. The most common cause of fungal toenail infection (onychomycosis) is the fungus Trichophyton rubrum. You’re not alone. It is estimated that 14% of people in the United States have this condition.

There’s an increased chance of developing toenail fungus as you age. The prevalence is 18.2% in people age 60 and up, while only 0.7% in people younger than 19.

While that’s the most likely reason, a fungal infection is not the only reason your toenail color could be off; 50% of cases of nail disease can be attributed to causes other than fungus or yeast infections including other infections, diseases, and trauma.

Treatment

Unfortunately, toenail discoloration related to fungal infections is challenging to treat, rarely goes away on its own, and typically requires medical intervention. Your toenails may take a while to become healthy.

There are several over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription options to choose from to help you address the root of the problem.

Over-the-Counter Medications

If you take a walk through your local pharmacy aisles, you’ll find plenty of creams, polishes, and powders purporting nail repair benefits. But a search for OTC medications yields a mixed bag of results with regards to treating toenail discoloration and nail fungus.

Some sources claim you should expect to see results in a few days or weeks, while others say OTC medications are only for mild cases of toenail fungus. Also be aware that you may not have a fungal infection, so they won't address your problem.

If you’ve tried an OTC product for a few months without seeing results, schedule an appointment with your doctor. You may need to implement a different strategy for banishing toenail discoloration.

Prescription Medications

Your doctor may prescribe a medication to treat the underlying cause of toenail discoloration. For example, your doctor might place you on an oral, antifungal drug regimen. These drugs include Lamisil (terbinafine) and Sporanox (itraconazole).  

The downside to using oral medications is that they take several weeks to months to work, and you might not see results until a new toenail grows back. Also, oral antifungals can cause side effects—most commonly, headaches, stomach upset, rashes, and liver toxicity.

Since some of these medications can be hard on your liver, your doctor may require you to have periodic blood tests to see if your body’s tolerating the treatment well.

Unlike oral medications, many creams and ​topical antifungal agents haven’t proven as effective at treating toenail fungus. The main reason for this is because the medications can’t permeate hard nails.

Some experts suggest the effectiveness of creams can be enhanced by first filing your nails, so you make them thinner. Like other treatments, you may have to wait a significant amount of time before results are visible.

Enter nail lacquers, which you paint on your toenails and the surrounding skin. Ciclopirox is an antifungal drug that is mixed in a nail lacquer such as Loprox and Penlac. But they are not very effective when used without oral drugs. 

The use of nail lacquers requires commitment and compliance, because you may need to use the product daily for several months. However, there are some side effects associated with topical nail lacquers, which include itching, rashes, and scaling skin, among other things.

Laser Treatments

The Food and Drug Administration has approved some different types of laser treatments for toenail fungus. The initial evidence suggests they may be helpful at reducing the symptoms.

However, your insurance company might not cover the cost of laser treatments, and you could be stuck with a hefty price tag. While emerging research is promising, the overall evidence is still lacking to know if this technology works better than other types of treatment.

Surgery

In some cases, medications may not resolve the condition, and surgical intervention might be necessary. Your doctor may consider surgery to remove the toenail if you have an infection that is resistant to drug therapy.

Or, your doctor may determine that it’s necessary to remove a nail to place medication directly on the infected portion of the skin. Finally, surgery might be the best course of action for your condition if you’re experiencing intense pain and discomfort.

A Word From Verywell

No matter what treatment you choose, it’s going to take time to see results. But if you begin to notice some discoloration on your toenails, don’t be afraid or embarrassed to talk with your doctor. The sooner you get treatment, the more likely you are to successfully tackle a fungal infection and grow a healthy nail.

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Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Merck Manual Consumer Version. Onychomycosis. Updated August 2017.

  2. Blutfield MS, Lohre JM, Pawich DA, Vlahovic TC. The immunologic response to Trichophyton rubrum in lower extremity fungal infectionsJ Fungi (Basel). 2015;1(2):130–137. doi:10.3390/jof1020130

  3. Ghannoum M, Isham N. Fungal nail infections (onychomycosis): A never-ending story?PLoS Pathog. 2014;10(6):e1004105. doi:10.1371/journal.ppat.1004105

  4. Zang K, Sullivan R, Shanks S. A retrospective study of non-thermal laser therapy for the treatment of toenail onychomycosisJ Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2017;10(5):24-30.

  5. Park KY, Suh JH, Kim BJ, Kim MN, Hong CK. Randomized clinical trial to evaluate the efficacy and safety of combination therapy with short-pulsed 1,064-nm neodymium-doped yttrium aluminium garnet laser and amorolfine nail lacquer for onychomycosis. Ann Dermatol. 2017;29(6):699-705. doi:10.5021/ad.2017.29.6.699

Additional Reading
  • Shirwaikar AA, Thomas T, Shirwaikar A, Lobo R, Prabhu KS. Treatment of onychomycosis: An update. Indian Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences. 2008 Nov-Dec; 70(6): 710–714. doi:10.4103/0250-474X.49088