treatment of fungal nail infection

Last edited 02/2022 and last reviewed 03/2022

Conformation of the diagnosis should be done before initiating antifungal therapy (1).

When to treat (1):

  • a positive microscopy (fungal elements seen) is sufficient to start antifungals
  • a positive dermatophyte culture with negative microscopy is still significant
  • a negative microscopy or culture does not rule out fungal infection, particularly with kerion and nail infections; if clinical appearance very suggestive of fungal infection, repeat sample and start treatment

Treatment of onychomycosis should vary according to the nature of the infecting organism and the extent of the infection.

  • Dermatophyte infection
  • Candida infection
  • Non-dermatophyte, mould infection e.g. scopulariopsis brevicaulis, Fusarium species, Aspergillus species

"..There has been debate as to whether treatment of toenail onychomycosis is justified or whether it is more a cosmetic concern. However, as toenail infections present a risk as a portal of entry for significant bacterial sepsis (cellulitis), particularly in diabetics and those with peripheral vascular disease, the cost-benefit ratio of treatment today seems irrefutable.." (2)

Topical therapy:

  • recommendations when to use topical therapy as monotherapy (3)
    • role of monotherapy with topical antifungals is limited to Superficial White Onychomycosis (SWO) (except in transverse or striate infections),
    • early Distal and Lateral Subungal Onychomycosis (DLSO) (except in the presence of longitudinal streaks) when < 80% of the nail plate is affected with lack of involvement of the lunula,
    • or when systemic antifungals are contraindicated
  • 5% amorolfine nail lacquer used once or twice a week 6 months for fingernails and 12 months for toe nails is recommended by PHE (1)
  • according to some clinical trials topical agents such as ciclopirox olamine 8% lacquer used daily for 48 weeks (28 to 36% mycologic cure rates) or tioconazole 28% solution used twice a day for 6 to 12 months (20 to 70% mycologic cure rates) may be beneficial (4)
  • topical therapy together with vigorous debridement may improve the rate of success (4)

Systemic therapy

  • Terbinafine 250 mg daily for 6-12 weeks in finger nail and 3-6 months in toe nail infections (1)
  • Itraconazole - 200 mg twice a day 2 courses of 7 days/month for finger nail and 3 courses of 7 days/month for toe nail infections (1)


Devices have diverse mechanisms of action

  • laser device systems are thought to act through selective photothermolysis, which is the conversion of light energy into heat energy that is confined to a specific target
    • specific target in this case is fungi, which selectively absorb heat that leads to cell death
  • Photodynamic therapy uses a narrow-spectrum light source to activate topically-applied photosensitisers

There is currently not enough evidence to recommend or discourage the use of 1064-nm Nd:YAG laser, or photodynamic therapy (5)

Key points (6):

  • take nail clippings; start therapy only if infection is confirmed
  • oral terbinafine is more effective than oral azole
  • liver reactions 0.1 to 1% with oral antifungals
  • if candida or non-dermatophyte infection is confirmed, use oral itraconazole
  • topical nail lacquer is not as effective
  • to prevent recurrence: apply weekly 1% topical antifungal cream to entire toe area
  • children: seek specialist advice


  • for non-dermatophyte moulds other than Candida spp. seek the advice of a microbiologist or dermatologist (1)
  • for infections with candida or non-dermatophyte moulds use oral itraconazole (1)
  • idiosyncratic liver and other severe reactions occur very rarely with terbinafine and itraconazole (1)
  • for children, seek specialist advice (1)
  • other topical therapies (3):
    • once-daily application of topical 10% efinaconazole, a new triazole antifungal agent has been found to be an effective treatment, with mycological cure rates approaching 50% and complete cure (defined as mycological and clinical cure) in 15% of patients after 48 weeks
    • new topical formulations of terbinafine are being investigated, with early data showing promising clinical and mycological results
    • butenafine, bifonazole, salicylic acid, over-the-counter mentholated ointment, ozonized sunflower oil and undecenoates have been used, but there are limited data to support their use as monotherapy for onychomycosis
    • a 40% urea ointment is now available for the treatment of onychomycosis
      • urea ingredient provides non-surgical nail ablation of onychomycosis
  • in a small clinical case series, Vicks VapoRub seemed to have a positive clinical effect in the treatment onychomycosis (7)