Every year, people spend millions of dollars on oral and topical prescriptions, laser treatments, over-the-counter (OTC) products, and other home remedies in hopes of curing their toenail fungal infection (also called onychomycosis).
Unfortunately, treating onychomycosis can take a long time, especially since toenails tend to grow back slowly.
If you’re experiencing symptoms of a toenail fungal infection, including dry, brittle, or cracked toenails, you may want to know whether certain home remedies can effectively and quickly treat the infection at home.
In this article, I’ll cover the basics of a toenail fungal infection, including its symptoms, risk factors, and causes.
I’ll also cover how it’s typically treated and which home remedies may or may not be effective at clearing the infection.
Finally, I’ll explain when you may want to speak with your medical provider about a possible toenail fungal infection.
What Is Toenail Fungus?
Toenail fungus is a type of fungus that can cause an infection, causing nails to become brittle or change color.
Dermatophytes, a specific type of fungus, are responsible for most toenail infections. The main types of dermatophytes that cause toenail infections are:
- Trichophyton rubrum
- Trichophyton mentagrophytes
Between 3-12% of the general population are affected with nail fungus, which can occur on the toenails or fingernails.
Most fungal nail infections affect the toenails, with big toenails being the most commonly affected by toenail fungus.
The main symptoms of toenail fungal infection include:
- Misshapen nails
- Whitish-yellowish or brownish discoloration of the toenails
- Brittle or crumbly toenails
- Toenails that hurt or become painful
- Loosening or lifting of the toenail
- Dull toenails that have lost their usual luster and/or shine
- Toenails that appear fragile or cracked
- White or yellow patches or streaks that form on the surface of the toenail (which sometimes appear as small dots)
- Discolored or brittle parts of the toenail that detach from the nail bed
In most cases, toenail fungus appears at the front or side edge of the nail.
Though less common, symptoms of toenail fungus can also begin at the base of the nail.
Anyone can get toenail fungus, but some people are at higher risk, including:
- People with other fungal infections, specifically athlete’s foot
- People with minor skin or nail injuries
- People with deformed nail or nail disease
- People who have frequent contact with infectious fungi in places like swimming pools, saunas, etc.
- People with certain skin conditions, like psoriasis
- People with blood circulation issues
- People with damaged nerves
- People who wear tight-fitting shoes
- The immunocompromised (including those living with a chronic condition like HIV or those who take medication that suppresses the immune system)
Home Remedies for Toenail Fungus
Prescription antifungal medications such as itraconazole or terbinafine are effective at treating most fungal toenail infections.
But treating a toenail infection with these medications takes time and patience, since they generally need to be taken for at least three months.
They can also cause bothersome side effects, including stomach or liver problems.
Other treatments are also available, including topical medications, laser removal and nail removal, but they can be costly and difficult to access.
Given the prevalence of toenail fungal infections and how long it can take to treat them, many people turn to over-the-counter products (OTC) and home remedies for relief. But do they really work?
One review from 2015 found that most OTC topical treatments found at drugstores are not effective at treating a toenail fungal infection.
Here, we look at the evidence behind some of the most popular home remedies for toenail fungus.
In one study, 83% of participants who used Vicks VapoRub (a mentholated ointment designed to soothe cough and chest congestion) experienced a positive treatment effect, while 27.8% were able to eliminate the fungal infection completely.
Though these results are promising, the study only included 18 total participants, which is a very small sample size.
More evidence (including large, randomized clinical trials) is needed to determine the general effectiveness of this and similar products at treating toenail fungal infections.
At this time, the use of Vicks VapoRub has not been established as an effective treatment.
One double-blind clinical trial found that snakeroot extract (also known as ageratina pichinchensis extract) may be as effective as the antifungal medication ciclopirox at treating a toenail fungal infection.
Still, participants using both snakeroot extract and ciclopirox had to continue treatment for six months, which means that snakeroot extract wasn’t any faster at treating the infection than the clinical alternative.
Another important note is that only 96 participants completed the study, 49 of which were assigned the snakeroot extract treatment.
Ultimately, larger studies and clinical trials are needed to demonstrate the effectiveness of snakeroot extract. Current Snakeroot users should plan to use the medication for 9 to 12 months.
One study found that baking soda (also known as sodium bicarbonate, or SB) had antifungal properties on in vitro and ex vivo samples.
More evidence is needed to determine whether it is a consistent effective treatment option for toenail fungal infections. There is not enough evidence to recommend this home remedy.
Clean socks and shoes
Wearing clean socks and shoes and not sharing your socks and shoes with other people is an excellent personal hygiene strategy for preventing fungal infections, but it’s unlikely to treat an existing infection.
Those with and without toenail fungus should practice not sharing shoes and wearing clean socks.
Tea tree oil
One study of 20 patients with mild-to-moderate onychomycosis found that a mixture of vitamin E and essential oils of lime, oregano, and tea tree cured 78.5% of their fungal infections after 12 months.
Again, 20 patients is a pretty limited sample size, demonstrating that more, large-scale evidence is needed to determine the efficacy of this approach.
If you decide to try the tea tree oil combination, it should be used for one year before deciding if it has been effective.
The mixture evaluated in the study mentioned above also contained essential oregano oil, suggesting that it may help to treat fungal infections.
Oregano contains thymol, which has been reviewed for its antibacterial and antifungal properties.
Although another study found that thymol possesses antifungal activity against a specific fungus, C. albicans, there isn’t enough evidence to determine whether it would be effective at treating toenail fungal infections on its own.
Other essential oils
There may be other essential oils that contain antifungal properties effective at killing the fungus that causes onychomycosis:
- Lime essential oil: Lime essential oil was the third essential oil used in the mixture evaluated in the study of 20 patients with mild-to-moderate onychomycosis.
- Eucalyptus oil: Eucalyptus oil may also help to treat toenail fungal infections, according to one longitudinal prospective study that collected samples from 22 participants.
Keep in mind that because the studies investigating these oils were conducted using small sample sizes, more evidence is needed to know about their effectiveness as an onychomycosis treatment option.
Apple cider vinegar
Apple cider vinegar has grown in popularity in recent years as a home remedy for many ailments, including fungal infections.
Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that applying apple cider vinegar to your toenails will clear a toenail fungal infection.
Due to the acidic nature of apple cider vinegar, exposing the skin and tissue of the toes to apple cider vinegar on a recurrent basis is not recommended.
Olive leaf extract
Olive leaf extract may contain antifungal properties that can help treat onychomycosis.
One study of nine patients found that their nail thickness was significantly reduced after six months of treatment.
Like many of these options, more large-scale evidence is needed to determine the effectiveness of this approach.
Ozonized oils, or ozonated oils, are oils that are combined with ozone gas.
One study of 400 outpatients, half of which were treated with topical ozonated sunflower oil, found that ozonated sunflower oil was more effective than ketoconazole cream at treating the infection after three months.
What’s more, those who were treated with sunflower oil didn’t experience any adverse side effects.
Additional research is being performed to confirm the effectiveness of this treatment.
OTC mouthwash contains some of the same ingredients listed above that may have antifungal properties, like menthol, thymol, and eucalyptus oil.
However, there isn’t evidence to suggest that it’s an effective treatment option for a toenail fungal infection.
The use of Listerine mouthwash for the treatment of toenail fungus is not recommended.
Unfortunately, there isn’t evidence to suggest that eating garlic can cure a toenail fungal infection.
Applying raw garlic to the foot or toe is also unlikely to be effective and can cause burns.
Eating a balanced, nutritious diet is a great way to support your overall health and immune system.
However, the incorporation or restriction of certain foods will not treat a toenail fungal infection.
Home remedies to avoid
Most home remedies for toenail fungus are unlikely to cause unwanted side effects.
Still, when considering home remedies to treat a toenail infection, it’s important to consider a few things:
- Lack of evidence: Many home remedies don’t have as much scientific evidence to support their effectiveness as other more evidence-based treatment options, like prescription antifungal medications.
- Lower risk of side effects: On the plus side, even if they don’t work, most home remedies are less likely to cause adverse side effects when compared with antifungal medications.
- Longer treatment time: In the case that home remedies do help to treat your infection, it’s likely to take a long time (and, in some cases, longer than the medical alternative).
If you’re immunocompromised or living with other chronic conditions, it’s a good idea to speak to your medical provider before trying out any at-home toenail fungus remedies.
When To See a Medical Provider
If you’ve recently tried a home remedy for your toenail fungus but have not noticed an improvement in your symptoms, reach out to your medical provider for help.
Additional symptoms that warrant more immediate medical attention are:
- A fungal infection that doesn’t go away or improve
- Toenails that are painful to touch, red, or drain pus
How K Health Can Help
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K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
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Antifungal activity of sodium bicarbonate against fungal agents causing superficial infections. (2013.)
An Open Study to Evaluate Effectiveness and Tolerability of a Nail Oil Composed of Vitamin E and Essential Oils in Mild to Moderate Distal Subungual Onychomycosis. (2020.)
Double-blind clinical trial for evaluating the effectiveness and tolerability of Ageratina pichinchensis extract on patients with mild to moderate onychomycosis. A comparative study with ciclopirox. (2008.)
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Is Onychomycosis Still a Problem? (2014.)
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Over-the-counter and natural remedies for onychomycosis: do they really work? (2016.)
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Safety and Efficacy of Fermented Olive Tree Leaf Extract for Treatment of Paronychia and Neoscytalidium dimidiatum Onychomycosis: A Pilot Study. (2018.)
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