article icon

Onycholysis (loose nails): causes, symptoms & treatments

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read

Onycholysis is a medical term that means a loose nail that falls off or comes away from the underlying structures. The nail separates from the skin underneath it, known as the nail bed. It can either partially or fully come off.

The part of the nail that has come away from the bed will look white and opaque. It can be quite disconcerting; however, it is common and isn’t usually a sign of anything serious. In most cases, the nail will likely grow back, although be prepared as this is a slow process!

Common causes

The most common cause of onycholysis is trauma. This can be a high-force trauma, such as dropping something heavy on your nail, or low-level trauma over a length of time, such as repeatedly wearing shoes that are too small.

Other causes are very broad and include genetics, medication, and skin conditions. A change in your body's normal state can also result in onycholysis; for example, pregnancy, changes in your thyroid function, conditions such as diabetes, and other autoimmune conditions (where your body's immune system attacks itself) such as psoriasis, lupus, and pemphigus. Certain medications can also contribute to the occurrence such as

  • tetracycline antibiotics
  • fluoroquinolones
  • retinoids
  • some nail products

In an extremely small number of people, onycholysis can be a cancer symptom, although, in the majority of people, this is not the cause.

How to treat it

This depends on what the cause is and how severe it is. Once a nail has detached from the nail bed, it cannot reattach, so it is mainly about preventing more harm to the nail and treating any underlying cause.

Keep the area as clean and dry as possible. Carefully trim down the nail, leaving any nail still attached with a margin, making sure not to damage the nail or nail bed any further. A podiatrist can help with this. Protect any remaining nail as much as you can by avoiding things that could cause any further damage.

Do nails regrow and how long do they take?

If the nail bed is not damaged and any underlying cause has been treated, then the nail should grow back. It is, unfortunately, a very slow process. Fingernails can take an average of 6 months to grow back completely, for toenails, it's at least twice as long.

When should I see my doctor?

If you have onycholysis and have not had trauma to the nail, it is best to check it with your doctor to see if there could be an underlying cause.

Depending on what they find on their assessment, they may send off nail clippings to look for any infection and also blood tests to check for any underlying cause.

If you have had trauma or injury to the nail, it is best to visit a podiatrist to check that you have not damaged the nail bed or nail matrix.

Any signs of infection, which include redness, swelling, and increasing pain, means your doctor should assess you.

Was this helpful?

Was this helpful?

This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
App Store
Google Play
Piff tick
Version 2.28.0
© 2024 Healthwords Ltd. All Rights Reserved