Causes of Yellow Nails

Prolonged nail polish use is one of the causes of yellow nails.
Prolonged nail polish use is one of the causes of yellow nails. (Image: foot, toes, sky image by Katrina Miller from

It isn’t just nail polish that can make nails different colors. Nail discoloration can be an indicator of underlying health problems or simply a result of the aging process. Nails can turn white, black, brown, blue, red and purple, but often the discoloration is yellow. Yellow nail discoloration has several causes.

Fungal Infection

A fungal infection is the most common culprit behind yellow-colored nails and affects 12 percent of Americans, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. A fungal nail infection, also called onychomycosis, may start with a small white or yellow spot under the tip of a nail. The infection can spread through the rest of the nail, the nail bed, skin surrounding the nail and other nails, reports the American Podiatric Medical Association website.

Changes in nail thickness and quality may accompany the color change. The nail could smell foul and the nail bed may also retract. While a person can suffer from the infection for years without feeling pain, it can worsen with time. Eventually toenails may become difficult to trim, the resulting soreness making it difficult to wear shoes.

Unfortunately these infections can be difficult to treat. Prevention is the best cure, so those concerned about developing a fungal nail infection should regularly inspect their nails for signs of infection and focus on keeping their feet and hands clean and dry. If you think you might have an infection you should talk to your doctor. There are medications and treatments doctors can prescribe depending on the severity of the infection.

Yellow Nail Syndrome

Yellow nail syndrome (YNS) is rare and thought to be genetic in certain cases, according to Cigna. It is linked to lymphedema, a condition affecting the lymphatic system and causing swelling in one or more extremities. Sufferers also tend to have respiratory tract abnormalities. In addition to yellow coloring, the nails of YNS sufferers often lack a cuticle and are slow to grow. The nails can also be loose or detached from the nail bed, information from the National Institute of Health’s MedlinePlus indicates.

YNS is most common in older adults. Individuals who believe they might have lymphedema need medical treatment for the accompanying respiratory and lymphatic system issues. The changes to the nails are often permanent, according to the New Zealand Dermatological Society. Oral medication and a vitamin E topical treatment have helped control the syndrome in some cases.


Psoriasis is a common inherited skin disorder. Its sufferers have red, irritated skin with some flaky patches or scales. Approximately half of all psoriasis sufferers will see changes in their nails, while about 10 percent of those with psoriasis experience visible changes only in the nails, according to NIH’s MedlinePlus. If the nails are affected by psoriasis they will often thicken and display pits on the surface. They will also show yellow-brown or yellow-pink spots.


Diabetics’ nails will often have a yellowish hue. This is a benign condition that is likely caused by a protein-glucose reaction in the body, suggests a study cited in the Electronic Textbook of Dermatology.


Nails may simply yellow due to the aging process. As a person grows older, his nails become more brittle. The toenails in particular harden and thicken, becoming opaque or a dull yellow.

Nail Polish Use

Using nail polish frequently without giving nails a chance to recover can lead to brittleness and discoloration. Polishes, especially red ones, can cause nails to turn yellow, according to To prevent color changes, always use a protective base coat before painting nails, and avoid long-term use of nail polish.

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