Are Yellow Nails Really Unhealthy?

Are Yellow Nails Really Unhealthy?

Normally, nails are clear, shiny, and a window to the healthy pink tissue that lies deep to it. So when you notice a discoloration in this naturally clear window, your reaction might understandably be one of concern and alarm.

Yellowing of the nails can occur for a variety of reasons. Let's take a more in-depth look at some common causes of yellow nails, and whether or not they merit a trip to the doctor or just a simple change in your beauty routine.

Are Yellow Nails Really Unhealthy?

 Cause #1: Too much polish

A common cause of nails turning yellow is wearing nail polish too often. This is especially apparent in shades of red, which get their color from iron oxides, a pigment that includes some of the same chemicals found in rust. The darker the red, the more iron oxide is used to attain the color, and the greater the likelihood of the polish staining the nail and giving it its yellow tinge.

The Cure: To remove the stain, soak the nail in 3% hydrogen peroxide and apply two layers of basecoat before you put on your colored nail polish. Take a nail polish break every two or three weeks to allow your nails to recover from the chemicals used during manicures.

The Verdict: NO. Not a cause for concern! Just ease up on your vampy reds every once in awhile to get your nails back to normal.

Are Yellow Nails Really Unhealthy?

Cause #2: Fungal infection

Fungal nail infections, or onychomycosis, can be caused by many different fungi. Usual culprits are yeast, mold, and a common type of nail fungus called a dermatophyte that consumes keratin. Effects of nail fungus include yellowing of the nail, thickening, ridging, and even pain. Nail fungus may spread from one nail to another.

Athletes--runners especially--commonly have nail fungus problems, due to the perpetual combination of sweaty feet encased in warm, moist shoes and socks (and on top of that, their frequent use of communal gym showers and locker rooms). Diabetics and elderly people are also prone to developing nail fungus, because their nails grow weak and brittle, thus allowing infection to set in more easily.

The Cure: You may need to get a prescription for antifungal drugs, which can be oral, topical, or a combination of both. Oral antifungal medications work faster than topical drugs, and allow a new infection-free nail to grow in place of the infected one. You may also get medicated nail cream or nail polish, which you'll have to apply daily after soaking and thinning your nails to allow the medication to penetrate all the way to the infected tissue.

The Verdict: YES.  Nail fungus is notoriously difficult to treat, and the sooner you detect it, the sooner you can start treating it. Be forewarned: it usually takes months to fully treat nail fungus, and even then it's very likely that you'll get it again.

Are Yellow Nails Really Unhealthy?

Cause #3: Smoking

The nicotine found in cigarettes damages your blood vessels, making them harden and narrow. The tiny blood vessels that supply your fingertips and nails constrict, leaving those distal areas deprived of oxygen and nutrients. This leads to permanent yellowing of the nails and even clubbing, a deformity that leads to nails becoming large and bulbous. 

Not to mention, just holding a cigarette between your fingers can cause your nails AND fingertips to be stained yellow, thanks to the tar and nicotine in the cigarette coming in contact with your skin and nails.

The Cure: First, stop smoking. Second, you can try a variety of home remedies to remove the stains off your nails, such as soaking them in hydrogen peroxide or pure lemon juice. Third, stop smoking. Fourth, take vitamin B12 supplements to help your nails get back to their clear, healthy state. Lastly, stop smoking!

The Verdict: YES.  Not only does smoking pose no end of beauty problems, it also leaves you more susceptible to irreversible, dangerous health issues that will definitely require medical attention.

Cause #4: Yellow nail syndrome

Yellow nail syndrome is a rare health condition, characterized by three classic symptoms: 

  • Yellow or yellow-green discoloration of the nails, accompanied by thickening and slow growth
  • Lymphedema, in which lymph pools and collects in certain areas of the body instead of circulating through the lymphatic system. Often, lymphedema occurs in the abdomen and legs, causing those areas to swell.
  • Lung problems due to lymph accumulating in the lungs, such as frequent lung infections and shortness of breath 

The Cure: Treatment for yellow nail syndrome may include taking zinc and vitamin E to improve the nails, and antifungal medication to prevent the growth of nail fungi. More importantly, it’s vital that you see a doctor to manage your symptoms of lymphedema and lung problems.

The Verdict: YES. Additionally, yellow nail syndrome can be dangerous when fluid collects around the heart, leading to compression of the heart and an increased risk for heart infections.

Are Yellow Nails Really Unhealthy?

Cause #5: Aging

Bodily processes slow down as we age, and the upkeep of our nails is no exception. Age-related changes such as decreased metabolism and slower delivery of nutrients affects nails in ways such as misalignment, thickening of the nail, separation from the nail from the nail bed, and yes, yellowing.

The Cure: At this point, what you'll need to focus on is proper nail care. Wash and dry your hands and feet meticulously. Clean under your nails to suss out any dirt that's trapped there, and keep your fingernails and toenails trimmed straight across to prevent cuts on the sides of your fingers and toes. Make sure to dry in between your toes before you put socks on, and wear shoes that don't pinch your toes to prevent blisters and nail breakage. Take vitamins regularly as well to supplement your body's changes.

The Verdict: NO. No cause for alarm here! Just an expected, harmless consequence of aging. You’ll need to be on the lookout for what other conditions old, weakened nails could lead to though, such as nail fungus (see above!).

So is it a health issue or isn’t it?
Short answer? It could be. Sometimes yellow nails are just a by-product of loving nail polish too much, or they’re a natural consequence of aging. Other times they’re a sign of other health conditions that may need medical attention. It bears mentioning, though, that if you really do have health issues, your nails likely won’t be the first sign you notice! Nevertheless, it’s still good to know what your body is trying to tell you. After all, your nails aren’t just a window for what lies beneath, but also a window into the state of your health. 


Sandy Getzky

Sandy Getzky is the executive coordinating editor at The Global Nail Fungus Organization, a group committed to helping the 100+ million people suffering from finger and toenail fungus. Sandy is also a registered Herbalist and member of the American Herbalist’s Guild.

[email protected] (with Gravatar account)

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