Onychomycosis is a common fungal infection which can affect one or more toenails or fingernails, causing thick, brittle and disfigured nails. Available prescription treatments pose the risk of side effects, making home remedies -- such as topical tea tree oil -- popular alternatives. Derived from the leaves of the Melaleuca alternifolia tree, tea tree oil has antifungal properties, yet there is a lack of evidence this essential oil is an effective nail fungus treatment. Ideal treatment protocol is also not known, so common application steps mirror those used in the research studies.

Seek Medical Advice

If you suffer from nail fungus, an important first step is to discuss treatment options with your doctor or podiatrist. When topically applied to infected nails, tea tree oil has minimal side effects, so your doctor may support a trial of this essential oil if you are interested. However, the nail filing and cutting recommended prior to oil application, if too aggressive, can injure nearby skin and lead to infection in people who have diabetes, poor blood flow, or other conditions that compromise the immune system. Also, the topical application of any essential oil can cause skin irritation or rash. So work with your doctor to ensure this home treatment is safe for you.

Prepare the Nail

Start by sterilizing your nail clipper, by soaking it in rubbing alcohol or a 10 percent bleach solution for 10 minutes. Next, prepare your nail for treatment by trimming away dead nail, and being careful to avoid cutting your skin. Then file with a coarse nail filer, removing as much dead nail as you can without scratching the skin below or around the nail. If needed, use a medium or fine nail filer to smooth any jagged or rough areas.

Apply Tea Tree Oil

Clean your affected nail with soap and water to remove nail dust. Use a cotton swab to apply a few to several drops of tea tree oil to the affected nail, and allow to air dry. Apply thoroughly, so the oil penetrates the affected nail as much as possible. Be careful to minimize application to nearby skin, as undiluted oil can cause skin irritation or rash.

Reapply and Be Patient

Repeat the tea tree oil application 2 to 3 times per day, for 3 to 6 months, or according to any schedule provided by your doctor. Repeat the filing procedure 1 to 2 times a week, if needed, to remove any new dead nail tissue.

Prevent Future Infections

Fungal infections can be contagious, so take steps to prevent future infections. Wear clean, moisture-wicking socks and change socks daily -- or more often if your feet get sweaty. Wear well-fitting shoes that are made of leather, canvas or mesh, as these are less likely to create a damp environment that favors fungal growth. Wear shower sandals or flip flops when using public showers or pool areas, and sprinkle anti-fungal powder in your shoes to discourage fungal growth. Use sterilized nail clippers and do not share your clippers, socks, shoes or other personal foot care items.

Tip

Essential oils contain highly concentrated plant chemicals, and while applying undiluted or 100 percent tea tree oil might help an infected nail, this same oil can cause skin irritation or rash. Take care to avoid skin contact, or start by diluting the tea tree oil by mixing it with a carrier oil -- such as coconut or olive oil. Stop using tea tree oil if you have any skin irritation or rash.

Warning

To improve the odds this tea tree oil treatment will work, be prepared to apply the oil at least twice daily for several months. If these steps are not practical for you, or if you are hoping for a faster treatment, talk to your doctor about other options. There are several over-the-counter and prescription treatments for nail fungus that can be effective.

If you have diabetes, heart disease, a history of any foot ulcers or infections, or if you have been told your immune system is compromised -- or if you cannot safely trim or care for your own nails -- do not start this treatment unless you have discussed this plan with your doctor. Also talk to your doctor if your fungal infection does not improve or if it worsens despite treatment, and see your doctor right away if your feet or toes have any redness, warmth, open sores or bleeding.

Reviewed by Kay Peck, MPH RD

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About the Author

Jacques Courseault

As a physical medicine and rehabilitation physician I have extensive experience in musculoskeletal/neurological medicine that will benefit the network.