Yellow Nails

Yellow nails can range from slightly discolored to a distinctly dark yellowish tint. Numerous things can cause yellow nails.

If you frequently wear nail polish, you may notice that your nails become stained yellow. However, more serious situations, like nail infections, yellow nail disease, lung syndrome, and rheumatoid arthritis, can also cause yellow nails. In addition, smoking can sometimes stain nails yellow.

This article explains the symptoms, causes, and treatment of yellow nails.

Close-up photo of a foot with a toenail fungus

Charlotte Bleijenberg / Getty Images

Symptoms of Yellow Nails

Yellow nails range in appearance from a slight discoloration to a noticeable dark yellow color. If you have yellow nails, you may notice the following:

Depending on the cause of the yellow nails, you may also notice additional symptoms. For example, with a rare disease called yellow nail syndrome, other symptoms include respiratory problems, chronic sinusitis, and lower limb swelling.

Causes of Yellow Nails

Many things can cause yellow nails. These include:

Melanonychia is a condition that results in discoloration of the nails. Often it presents as a dark stripe. It can be caused by fungal, bacterial, or viral infections, inflammatory disorders, tumors, systemic diseases like endocrine disorders and AIDS, trauma, and nutritional deficiencies.

Yellow nail syndrome is a rare disorder in which the cause is unknown. It is sometimes associated with autoimmune diseases (like rheumatoid arthritis), lymphatic diseases, and cancers.

Fungal infections commonly cause nail discoloration. Anyone can get nail fungus, but it is more common if you have a foot or nail injury, diabetes, a weakened immune system, poor circulation, or a fungal infection elsewhere on the body.

Nail staining can occur from wearing dark-colored nail polish and from smoking cigarettes.

Tobacco-stained fingers may be more than a cosmetic issue. One study noted an 84% frequency of tobacco-related diseases among people with tobacco-stained fingers. These conditions included:

What Medications Can Cause Yellow Nails?

Certain medications may also cause nails to turn yellow. These include:

  • Tetracyclines (an antibiotic used to treat acne and other bacterial infections)
  • Quinolones (a type of antibiotic)
  • Clofazimine (an antibiotic used to treat leprosy)
  • Combivir (a medication used to treat human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV)
  • Psoralens (a drug used to treat skin conditions)
  • Retinoids (an acne medication)
  • Cytotoxic drugs (chemotherapy drugs that kill cells)

Most of the time, nail discoloration resolves after you stop taking the medication. However, sometimes the problem persists even after you discontinue it.

Never stop taking a medication without first talking with a healthcare provider. They may decide it's best to finish the course (if it's short-term), or they may find another treatment option.

How to Treat Yellow Nails

Treatment for yellow nails depends on the cause. If your nails are yellow from melanonychia, treatment may involve stopping medication or treating the underlying disease or trauma.

If yellow nail syndrome is the cause, treatment may include antibiotics, vitamin E supplements, and corticosteroids. Sometimes surgery is required for respiratory problems, like pleural effusions (fluid-filled membranes in the lungs).

Fungal nail infections are often treated with antifungal medications, laser therapy, or nail removal. Nails that are stained from nail polish may need a break from nail polish. Once the nails grow out, they often clear up on their own.

Your skin and nails stop yellowing when you stop smoking.

Are There Tests to Diagnose Yellow Nails?

To diagnose the cause of your yellow nails, a healthcare provider (usually a dermatologist, a doctor specializing in skin and nails) will examine your nails and take a detailed medical history, including symptoms and any medications or health conditions you have. This information can often direct the next steps, if any.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Yellow nails are a condition that a healthcare provider should check out. While sometimes the cause of yellow nails can be cosmetic, it can also be caused by serious underlying health conditions.

If your yellow nails are accompanied by other body-wide symptoms (respiratory or circulatory symptoms), it is essential to get that checked out, as it could signal yellow nail syndrome.

In addition, fungal nail infections are notoriously stubborn to treat, so the sooner you receive a diagnosis and treatment plan, the more likely it will be that your infection will clear promptly.


Many things can cause yellow nails, including staining from substances like nail polish or a serious underlying health condition. In addition to discoloration, you may also notice nails that stop growing, separate from the nail bed or are brittle. Infections, trauma, nail polish stains, smoking, and medication side effects may be to blame for yellow nails. Treatment is geared toward the underlying cause.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What causes your fingernails to turn yellow?

    Many things can cause yellow nails. Some causes are harmless, like staining from dark-colored nail polish. But others may be a symptom of a fungal infection or an underlying health condition. Some medications, especially antibiotics, cancer drugs, and acne medicines, can also cause yellow nails.

  • How do you get rid of yellow nails?

    Getting rid of yellow nails depends on the cause. For example, if you're a smoker and your nails are tobacco-stained, you'll need to quit smoking. If you wear dark nail polish and your nails are stained, you may need to switch to a lighter color and wear a base coat. Fungal infections may require antifungals. And if the medication causes your yellow nails, you should talk with a healthcare provider about alternatives that don't have that side effect.

  • Can smoking cause yellow nails?

    Yes, smoking often leads to tobacco-stained fingers and nails. Not only is it a cosmetic problem, but researchers have noted an association between tobacco-stained skin and nails and smoking-related diseases.

8 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. American Academy of Dermatology Association. 12 nail changes a dermatologist should examine.

  2. Singal A, Bisherwal K. Melanonychia: Etiology, diagnosis, and treatmentIndian Dermatol Online J. 2020;11(1):1-11. doi:10.4103/idoj.IDOJ_167_19

  3. Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center. Yellow nail syndrome.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fungal nail infections.

  5. John G, Pasche S, Rothen N, Charmoy A, Delhumeau-Cartier C, Genné D. Tobacco-stained fingers: a clue for smoking-related disease or harmful alcohol use? A case-control studyBMJ Open. 2013;3(11):e003304. Published 2013 Nov 7. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2013-003304

  6. Drug-induced nail disordersPrescrire Int. 2014;23(151):180-182.

  7. National Organization for Rare Disorders. Yellow nail syndrome.

  8. American Cancer Society. Health benefits of quitting smoking over time.

By Kathi Valeii
As a freelance writer, Kathi has experience writing both reported features and essays for national publications on the topics of healthcare, advocacy, and education. The bulk of her work centers on parenting, education, health, and social justice.