Learn how to prevent and treat discolored toenails

Looking down at your toes, you notice that one, or a few, are looking a bit off-color. Whether green, black, or brown, this unsightly scene is enough to ask yourself: Is this discoloration normal? Should I be worried?

Find out what can cause nail discoloration and when you should talk to a doctor.

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Causes of Nail Discoloration

Toenails can change color for different reasons; some are more treatable than others. Before you can treat a discolored toenail, you have to know the cause. Common causes of nail discoloration include:

Fungal infection of the nails

Dirt, poor hygiene, and living in a humid area all can cause fungal infection in your toenails. Fungal toenail infections can cause discoloration, making your nail appear any of these colors:

  • Yellow
  • Red-brown
  • Green
  • Black

If a fungal infection is causing your nail discoloration, you may have success treating it with an over-the-counter antifungal cream.

Medical conditions that cause discolored nails

Certain medical conditions — such as diabetes, poor circulation, or a heart or lung disease — can cause your toenails to change color. Talk to your doctor about any existing conditions you have that could affect the color of your nails.

Nail injury

If you play sports, run on a regular basis, or participate in an activity that causes trauma to your feet, your toenails may develop white spots. If the trauma is severe enough, your nail can turn black from damage to the blood vessels and, in time, fall off.

Nail discoloration and age

As you age, your toenails, as well as your fingernails, may begin to turn a light shade of yellow. Nail discoloration is a normal part of the aging process.

Yellow nail syndrome

Yellow nail syndrome is a very rare condition. Often associated with lymphedema, it can occur during cancer treatment.

If you develop toenail fungus, you can treat the infection with an antifungal cream or an oral medication. For other causes of toenail discoloration, make sure your feet are well protected and avoid walking barefoot to prevent an injury or infection.

Preventing Toenail Discoloration

Here are some tips to prevent discolored toenails:

  • Wear shoes that fit properly to avoid injury.
  • Keep your toenails trimmed short.
  • Wear clean socks.
  • Dry your feet well after swimming or showering.
  • Avoid walking barefoot, especially in public places.
  • Avoid putting on socks or shoes while your feet are damp.
  • Spray your shoes with an antifungal spray to prevent infection.

When to See a Doctor for Discolored Nails

Most of the time, discolored toenails can be treated with over-the-counter medicines or items you already have at home. However, you may need to make an appointment with a dermatologist if you suspect a severe fungal infection or have other symptoms besides toenail discoloration. If you experience bleeding, sharp pain, or swelling, contact your doctor.

For more information about treating discolored toenails, contact the UPMC Department of Dermatology or call 412-647-4200.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

About Dermatology

The UPMC Department of Dermatology diagnoses, treats, and manages numerous hair, skin, and nail conditions and diseases. We care for common and uncommon conditions, and our treatments include both surgical and nonsurgical options. We operate several specialty centers for various conditions. The UPMC Cosmetic Surgery and Skin Health Center is a comprehensive dermatologic laser facility, offering a full range of cosmetic services and procedures. With UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, we offer a Skin Cancer Program that provides complete care from screenings, diagnosis, treatment, and beyond. Find a dermatology provider near you.