Nail Fungus Treatment: What to Know About Tea Tree Oil and More

Medically Reviewed by Briony Jain, PhD in Public Health

Photo Courtesy: Maskot/Getty Images

Have you noticed white or yellow spots under your nails? Thicker fingernails or toenails that tend to crack or break? If so, you might have nail fungus. Use this guide to find the best nail fungus treatment for you.

What Are the Symptoms of Nail Fungus Infection?

Nail fungus can affect both fingernails and toenails. Symptoms include nails that are:

  • Thicker than usual
  • Brittle and ragged
  • Slightly discoloured (from off-white to yellow-brown)
  • Unusually shaped

Nails with a fungus infection may also have an unpleasant smell.

What Causes Nail Fungus Infections?

Lots of different types of fungi (like yeast or molds) can cause nail fungus infections. These fungi thrive in warm, damp spaces like:

  • Sweaty sneakers 
  • Gyms and swimming pools

You may have a higher risk for nail infections if you have dry or brittle nails, nail injuries or skin conditions like psoriasis. These conditions can cause cracks in your nails or skin that let the fungus in. Other health conditions like diabetes or a weakened immune system can also raise your risk.

What Are the Treatments for Nail Fungus?

Treatments for nail fungus include pills and topical medicines you apply directly onto the nail.

  • Topical treatments: Your doctor may recommend medicated nail polish or nail cream. For best results, trim your nails and soak them in water before applying the cream or polish. This will help the medicine get through the hard nail surface and reach the fungus.
  • Pills: If topical treatments don’t work, your doctor may prescribe antifungal pills. You may need to take the pills for up to 12 weeks before you see results. That’s because these medicines help a new fungus-free nail grow to replace the infected nail. 

Antifungal pills are usually more effective than topical treatments, but they may cause serious side effects like skin rashes and liver damage. Talk with your doctor about the risks and benefits of antifungal pills to decide which treatment is right for you.

Can Toenail Removal Help Cure a Fungal Infection?

If you have a severe nail fungus infection that hasn’t responded to other treatments, your doctor may recommend removing the nail. Sometimes you need to temporarily remove the nail so you can apply topical treatments directly to the nail bed. In other cases, you may need to permanently remove the infected nail and let a new nail grow in its place. 

You can get a nail removal procedure at your doctor’s office. Your doctor will give you a shot to numb the finger or toe before removing the nail. This treatment can be effective, but it comes with a risk of other types of infections. Talk with your doctor about the risks and benefits of nail removal to see if it’s right for you.

Can Tea Tree Oil Cure Nail Fungus?

Some people try alternative remedies to treat nail fungus, such as tea tree oil, eucalyptus oil and snakeroot extract. However, the evidence for these remedies isn’t clear. Researchers need to do more studies to find out if any of these remedies are effective at treating nail fungus.

For example, tea tree oil is generally safe to use topically on skin infections and acne. But there are no large studies that show whether tea tree oil is effective in treating nail fungus infections.  

What About Laser Light Therapy?

Researchers are currently studying new and better ways to treat nail fungus. One experimental treatment is laser light therapy. This treatment aims to vaporize the fungus without harming the skin and surrounding tissue. While initial studies show promise, more research is needed to understand the safety and effectiveness of this treatment for nail fungus infections.

How Can I Prevent Nail Fungus Infections?

Follow these tips to prevent nail fungus infections:

  • Wash your hands and feet regularly. Always wash after touching an infected nail or going to public places like gyms or swimming pools where fungal infections can spread.
  • Keep your nails dry. Dry your hands and feet after washing and let them air out after sweating or exercising.
  • Clip and trim your nails. Clip your nails regularly to keep them short and clean. Use a nail file to smooth the edges and any thickened areas. If you go to a nail salon, make sure they sterilize their manicure tools between customers.
  • Protect your nails. Always wear shoes or sandals to protect your feet in public shared areas like locker and shower rooms. Avoid sharing nail clippers with other people.

You can also try wearing sweat-absorbing socks and shoes made of breathable materials. This can help prevent fungus from growing on your toenails.

Nail fungus may seem like no big deal, but it can be tricky to treat. So if you think you may have nail fungus, talk with your doctor right away. Together, you can find out what’s causing your symptoms and make a plan to treat your nail problems. 

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