What Causes Yellow Nails?

Medically reviewed by Susan Bard, MD

Your nails do more than protect the tips of your fingers and toes. Their appearance can provide clues about your overall health. Yellow nails have many possible causes, including external factors like nail polish, acrylic nails, smoking, or fungal infection. Yellow nails can also be a sign of an underlying health condition, such as a thyroid disorder or rheumatoid arthritis.

At-home remedies can help, but you might need to reach out to a healthcare provider if, for example, you notice other nail changes or symptoms. Knowing what causes yellow nails can help you take preventative steps and avoid possible complications.

What Causes Your Fingernails to Turn Yellow?

Yellow nails can be concerning, especially if you aren’t sure what’s causing the discoloration. Things like using dark nail polish or cooking with yellow-colored spices (e.g., turmeric) can temporarily stain your nails. However, if your nails continue to be yellow for more than a few days or new nail growth is yellow, it might be a sign of something more serious.

Common causes of yellow nails include: 

  • Nail polish: Regular use of dark nail polish, leaving nail polish on for more than a week, and wearing acrylic nails can stain your nails, causing them to appear yellow.

  • Smoking: Nicotine and tar in cigarettes can cause a yellowish nail tint.

  • Fungal infections: Fungal infections cause yellow, thickened, and crumbly nails.

  • Aging: Nail growth naturally slows down with age, leading to changes in nail texture and color, including yellowing.

  • Melanonychia: This condition causes vertical brown or black stripes on nails. The edges of the stripe may appear yellowish. Melanonychia can develop due to physical trauma to the nail, certain medications, nutritional deficiencies, infections, and inflammatory disorders.

  • Yellow nail syndrome: This rare condition is characterized by yellow, thickened, curling nails, as well as slow nail growth, lung issues, and swelling in the arms and legs.

  • Medication side effects: Medications like tetracyclines (used to treat bacterial infections) and chemotherapy drugs (used to destroy cancer cells) can cause nails to turn yellow.

Underlying Conditions

Underlying medical conditions can also cause nail discoloration. These conditions include:

  • Psoriasis: A chronic autoimmune skin condition that causes inflamed skin patches

  • Diabetes: A condition that occurs when your blood glucose, or blood sugar, is too high due to low levels of insulin (a hormone that regulates blood sugar)

  • Rheumatoid arthritis: An autoimmune disorder that causes pain and inflammation in joints

  • Thyroid disorder: A condition that affects your thyroid gland—a small butterfly-shaped organ in front of your neck that secretes hormones

  • Lung disease: A condition that affects your lungs, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD (a group of chronic, progressive lung diseases that limit airflow to the lungs) and chronic bronchitis (inflammation of airways to and from the lungs)

Related: What Yellow Nails Can Tell You About Your Health—Plus 8 Other Nail Symptoms

How Are Yellow Nails Treated?

Treatment for yellow nails depends on the cause. It will likely take time for your nails to return to their natural color, but at-home remedies and treatment options can help the process.

At-Home Remedies

At-home remedies may help restore the natural appearance of your nails if they’re temporarily stained yellow from nail polish or using yellow spices or dyes. These remedies include:

  • Hydrogen peroxide: Hydrogen peroxide can help remove tooth stains. It might also help remove nails stained by foods or other products. Soak a cotton ball with low-concentration hydrogen peroxide (3% or lower) and wipe your nails with the soaked cotton ball. You might notice less staining after trying this for several days.

  • Baking soda soak: Baking soda is an effective tooth whitener. It might also help treat fungal infections. Soak your nails in a mixture of baking soda and warm water. You might notice less staining after a few soaks.

Yellow nails associated with fungal infection or underlying health conditions require a diagnosis and treatment from a healthcare provider, such as a dermatologist (a medical doctor who specializes in skin, hair, and nails). Depending on the cause of yellow nails, healthcare providers may prescribe: 

  • Antifungal medications: If a fungal infection is causing yellow nails, antifungal creams or ointments applied directly to the nails can help clear the infection.

  • Vitamin E: Oral vitamin E supplements promote healthy nail growth in people with yellow nail syndrome. Oral vitamin E is sometimes combined with antifungal medications to help restore nail health.

If a health condition like psoriasis or hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) is causing yellow nails, treating the underlying condition may help improve the health and appearance of your nails.

Returning your nails to their natural color can take time, especially if a fungal infection causes the discoloration. Follow your healthcare provider’s recommendations for the best possible results.

Related: Toenail Fungal Infection Treatment: What to Know

How To Prevent Yellow Nails

Proper nail hygiene and other proactive habits can protect your nail health and may help prevent discoloration.

  • Practice proper nail hygiene: Keep your nails clean and trimmed to prevent dirt and germs from collecting under them, which increases the risk of infection.

  • Use gloves: Wear protective gloves when handling harsh chemicals, cleaning agents, or gardening to shield your nails from potential staining and damage.

  • Limit nail polish use: Give your nails some time between nail polish applications to prevent discoloration from prolonged exposure to pigmented products. Applying a thin layer of clear polish before using dark-colored polishes can help prevent staining.

  • Keep your hands and feet dry: Moisture can weaken nails. Fungi also thrive in warm, damp environments, so moisture increases the risk of fungal infection.

  • Keep nail equipment clean: Keep your nail clippers, files, and other equipment clean. Make sure the nail salons you choose use new or sterilized nail tools for each person.

  • Avoid smoking: If you smoke, consider quitting to prevent yellow nails and support your overall health.

  • Treat health conditions: Follow your treatment plan for conditions associated with yellow nails. This can help lower your risk of developing nail problems.

When to Contact a Healthcare Provider

At-home remedies may effectively remove yellow stains from nails. However, yellow nails can also indicate an underlying condition.

You may need to see a healthcare provider if:

  • Your nails remain yellow after trying at-home remedies

  • You notice changes in your nail shape, texture, or thickness

  • You develop additional symptoms, such as difficulty breathing or swelling in your arms and legs

A Quick Review

Many things can cause yellow nails, from lifestyle factors like nail polish and smoking to fungal infections and underlying health conditions. At-home remedies may help restore the natural color of your nails if they are yellow due to staining from nail polish, for example. Other causes require a diagnosis and treatment from a healthcare provider.

See a healthcare provider if you aren’t sure why your nails are yellow, if you have a health condition associated with nail changes, or if you suspect an infection. Treatment can help improve the appearance and health of your nails, though it may take time for new, healthy nails to grow. 

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