What Does It Mean When Your Toenails Are Yellow?

Reviewed on 12/29/2020

What color are healthy nails?

Yellow toenails may be an indicator of several conditions.
Yellow toenails may be an indicator of several conditions.

Healthy nails are usually pinkish in color without any cracks, indentations, ridges or abnormal depressions. If the toenails are turning yellow, it could be a result of multiple issues. Some may be less serious such as aging or chemicals in nail polish. However, it could also mean there is a more serious systemic medical condition for which medical treatment is required. In most cases, yellow toenails can be treated.

What causes yellow toenails?

The following cause yellow toenails

  • Aging: Aging is one of the most common causes of yellow toenails and fingernails. As people grow older, the color, thickness and shape of their nails change. These changes are normal and typically do not require treatment.
  • Nail polish: Painting the fingernails frequently with a nail polish, especially with brighter or darker colors such as red, pink, orange or black, can cause yellowish discoloration. Besides the yellow discoloration, there are no other changes in the nails. This is not serious and usually disappears when nail polish is discontinued.
  • Medical condition: Yellow toenails can be a symptom of an underlying medical condition. Yellow nails can be caused by jaundice, another infection, fungus or other medical disorders.
    • Yellow nail syndrome (YNS) is a rare medical condition. The exact cause is unknown, but patients present with yellow, curved and thickened nails that grow slowly, along with other symptoms such as respiratory problems. The nails may have ridges or indentations in them and can also turn black or green.
    • Yellow nails due to a medical condition may also be associated with other signs and symptoms such as

           If a medical condition is suspected, it is advised to consult a doctor as medical treatment is required.

  • Infection: One of the most common causes of yellow toenails in an infection called onychomycosis, which is caused by a fungus that attacks the nails. It is more common in adults. The nails may have yellow and white patches or turn completely yellow or even turn black. The fungal infection is most commonly caused by dermatophytes, which survive on keratin that is found in skin and nails. Poor hygiene, hot and humid weather, diabetes, decreased immunity, etc. increase the risk of fungal toenail infections.

When to see a doctor

If yellow toenails are not a result of aging or nail polish, medical treatment may be required. Seek medical attention if the yellow nails present with the following signs and symptoms

  • Changes in nail shape or thickness
  • Bleeding from the nails
  • Discharge from the nails
  • Painful nails
  • Swelling in and around the nails
  • Changes in the nail from yellow to grey or black
  • Systemic signs and symptoms, such as breathing difficulty or fever

How to prevent yellow toenails

The following practices can help maintain healthy nails and prevent yellow toenails, but they may not always be possible, especially if certain medical conditions cause yellow toenails.

  • Wearing properly fitting shoes
  • Cutting toenails straight across regularly with clean nail clippers
  • Keeping the nails clean and dry
  • Choosing a salon for a pedicure that follows proper sanitation guidelines
  • Taking breaks from applying nail polish and reducing the use of dark nail polish colors often
  • Avoiding wearing shoes that are wet or sweaty for a long time. They should be dried out completely before you wear them.
  • Wearing clean socks

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References
Medscape Medical Reference

National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD)


American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons. Yellow Toenails


Canadian Family Physician


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