Nail Fungus: Symptoms, Causes & Treatment

Updated in December 2023

Nail fungus is related to a fungal infection that causes changes to fingernail or toenail color, shape and texture. Some patients report a thicker, deformed or yellow nail. This type of infection most commonly affects toenails. 

Also referred to as onychomycosis, nail fungus can develop as a result of an overgrowth of many types of fungus. It is commonly related to cases of uncontrolled diabetes (due to general changes to blood flow in the body) and to recurrent antibiotic use. 

Treatment for nail fungus usually involves the use of oral or topical (nail polish-like) antifungals, like fluconazole or itraconazole. Some home remedies, like foot soaks and natural creams or lotions can be used to complement your medical treatment. 

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Common symptoms

The most common signs and symptoms of nail fungus include: 

  • White or yellow nails 
  • Thicker nails
  • Opaque, fragile or breaking nails
  • Nails that lift from the skin
  • Nail deformities
  • Changes to nail texture
  • Foul smell 

If you notice these changes, you should consult a dermatologist to assess your nails and confirm a diagnosis. 

To diagnose this condition, the dermatologist will usually collect a sample of the nail or scrape the underside of a nail to send to the lab. The lab will then identify the type of fungus present, which will help to guide treatment. 

Main causes

Nail fungus can be caused by many different type of fungus, such as Trichophyton rubrum, Microsporum spp., Epidermophyton spp and Candida spp. Although nail fungus can appear in anyone, it is most common in patients with a weakened immune system, in people with uncontrolled diabetes, in cases of blood circulation diseases and/or in those who take antibiotics for prolonged periods of time. 

In addition, people with a positive family history of nail fungus, who are over 40, and/or have poor hygiene habits are usually more likely to develop a fungal infection. 

Treatment options

Nail fungus can be treated with oral antifungals, like fluconazole or itraconazole, or with topical antifungal ointments or polishes.

Another option is laser therapy, which is usually recommended for chronic cases of nail fungus. This technique eliminates the fungus through infrared rays emitted by the laser. It is very effective, but can be costly. 

How long does treatment take?

Treatment is usually prolonged, as nail fungus is completed eliminated only after the nail has fully grown out. It can take around 6 months for nail fungus to clear in the fingernails, and 12 months for nail fungus to clear in the toenails. 

Home remedies for nail fungus

Nail fungus can be treated by applying 2 to 3 drops of clove essential oil on affected nails at least twice a day, Clove essential oil contains antifungal and healing properties that can help to speed-up recovery. Oregano essential oil and tea tree oil are also excellent home remedies for nail fungus, and can also be used.  

Other important consideration for treating nail fungus at home include: 

  • Avoiding the use of tight shoes
  • Opting for cotton-based socks
  • Washing and drying the feet thoroughly, including between the toes
  • Using flip-flops around pools or in locker rooms
  • Using personal manicure and pedicure tools (and not sharing)  

These measures can help to accelerate fungal infection recovery and prevent new infections. They can be used when undergoing medically prescribed treatment.