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Healthy nails are clear in color and smooth, without cracks, indentations, or ridges. Yellow toenails can be caused by aging, nail polish, or an infection.

Read on to learn about the causes of yellow toenails.

Aging can be a natural cause of yellow toenails and fingernails. As people grow older, the color, thickness, and shape of their nails tend to change. Aging individuals will often have a more yellow color to their nails.

If you paint your nails frequently with nail polish that’s red or orange in color, your nails can also be discolored as a result of the polish. Taking a break from painting your nails should make the yellow go away.

Having yellow toenails isn’t dangerous by itself. However, if the cause for the yellow toenails is an underlying medical condition, it may be a sign that something is wrong. For example, yellow toenails can be caused by an infection, fungus, or medical disorder.

In rare cases, yellow toenails can actually be a sign of a disorder called yellow nail syndrome (YNS). Doctors don’t know what exactly causes YNS, but people who have it have yellow, curved, thickened nails that grow slowly, along with other symptoms like respiratory problems. Their nails also may have ridges or indentations in them and can also turn black or green.

Go see your doctor if your nails also have any of the following:

  • change in shape or thickness
  • any bleeding
  • discharge
  • pain
  • swelling

One of the most common causes of yellow toenails in an infection by a fungus that attacks the nails. This is called onychomycosis, and it happens more in adults than children. It can lead the nail to turn yellow, have yellow spots, white patches, or even turn black.

The fungal infection is caused most often by dermatophytes, which eat keratin to grow. Keratin is found in skin and nails. According to American Family Physician, onychomycosis occurs in about 10 percent of the adult population, and the risk of getting it increases with age. About halfof people over the age of 70 get the fungal infection.

Some people are more prone to getting yellow toenails or catching a fungal infection. If you have a medical condition that causes poor blood circulation in the legs, like diabetes, peripheral vascular disease, or other autoimmune disorders, you’re more prone to foot disorders in general.

Athletes or people who spend a lot of time in hot or moist conditions are also more prone to getting a foot infection.

In most cases, yellow toenails are treatable. There are some medications and home remedies that might help cure yellow toenails or help lighten the yellow color. What treatment your doctor recommends will depend on what’s causing the yellow nails.

For example, if your yellow toenails are being caused by a fungal infection, you’ll need antifungal medication to treat it. One of the most common prescription antifungal medications is ciclopirox 8 percent solution, which is applied to the nails like nail polish.

Other medications that can help cure yellow toenails include applying vitamin E, zinc, and a topical corticosteroid with Vitamin D-3.

One study found that using antibiotics, such as 400 milligrams of clarithromycin, cleared up yellow toenails. Using antibiotics is especially helpful if there’s an infection present somewhere in the body, like pneumonia.

Shop for vitamin E oil.

Two nonprescription home remedies that’ve been studied to treat yellow toenails are Vicks VapoRub (a topical mentholated ointment) and tea tree oil.

Studies suggest that tea tree oil isn’t really effective in fighting off a fungal infection, but that Vicks VapoRub did work completely in over a quarter of people with yellow toenails and helped cure some of the infection in over half.

Shop for Vicks VapoRub.

You may not be able to prevent yellow toenails from ever happening again, but your best bet is to practice proper nail care and regularly inspect and monitor your nails for any signs of an issue, especially if you have poor circulation or are prone to nail disorders. Be sure to:

  • Always wear properly fitting shoes. Have your shoe size fitted by a professional if you’re unsure of your correct shoe size. Feet can change in shape and size with weight gain, loss, or pregnancy.
  • Cut toenails straight across with clean nail clippers.
  • Keep nails clean and dry.
  • Be careful when choosing a salon for a pedicure and check to make sure that they’re changing water and sanitizing stations between customers.
  • Regularly air out your shoes after sports or other outdoor activities to ensure that they’re not wet while you wear them.
  • Always wear clean socks.

Shop nail kits for your at-home pedicures.

In general, yellow toenails are a sign that something may be wrong. In some cases, yellow toenails may just be a result of nail polish or the normal aging process, but just to be on the safe side, you should always regularly monitor your nails for any changes.

Most cases of yellow toenails are caused by a fungal infection that’s treatable. If you notice that your nails are turning yellow — and especially if you have any other issues like a change in shape or thickness or any bleeding, discharge, pain, or swelling — you should see your doctor.