Toenail fungus causes thickened, separating, and discolored nails. Laser treatment may help some people address the infection, but more research is needed to assess its effectiveness.

Fungal nail infections are very common. Nearly anyone can develop toenail fungus, also known as onychomycosis.

Laser therapy is a newer, promising treatment option for nail fungus. The procedure may help stop fungal growth and help the infection clear.

This article reviews laser treatment for nail fungus, including what to expect, its effectiveness, risks, and alternative treatments.

An image of a person's nail under a light, representing laser treatment for nail fungus.Share on Pinterest
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Laser treatment uses concentrated light to kill the nail fungus and prevent its growth. Several types of laser treatments are available, which may affect how well the therapy works for a person.

Laser treatment for nail fungus started in the 1980s. Since then, new types of laser treatments have gradually entered the market.

Groups that may benefit most from laser treatment include:

Nail fungus can be difficult to remove. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggest that early treatment can help improve outcomes. The CDC also warns that nail fungus can spread to other areas of the body if left untreated.

Laser treatment for nail fungus can vary in cost based on:

  • the clinic
  • geographic location
  • equipment used
  • number of sessions

Some estimates indicate the cost can range from around $200–700 per session. A person should contact the clinic before scheduling to determine costs and the number of sessions they expect. Insurance may consider the procedure cosmetic, which means they will not cover any costs.

It is unclear how laser treatment removes nail fungus, but some experts believe that light penetrates the nail and absorbs the fungus. The absorption of light causes either damage or death of the fungus cells.

The majority of people will not feel any discomfort from the procedure.

Preparation

A person does not usually need to do anything to prepare, though different clinics may suggest using topical creams.

During the procedure

During a procedure, a person can expect to:

  • sit in a chair with shoes and socks removed
  • have a technician use a device to shine light onto each nail on the affected hand or foot
  • potentially feel some heat from the lasers

The process should take about 30 minutes.

Recovery

A person does not typically need any recovery time and can return to their usual activities immediately following each session. However, it can take about 2 months to notice the procedure’s results.

Other information

Some other considerations include the following:

  • a person often needs at least two sessions, which may be 5–6 weeks apart
  • results may take about 2 months
  • all nails get treated in the affected area
  • a person may need to use creams in conjunction with the procedure
  • fingernails can take 3–6 months to regrow completely
  • toenails may take 12–18 months to regrow completely

Learn more about the effectiveness of home remedies for toenail fungus.

Researchers and experts such as the American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD) note a lack of research concerning the safety and effectiveness of laser treatment for nail fungus.

However, a 2019 meta-analysis found evidence suggesting that laser therapy can be effective and safe for a person with nail fungus.

The researchers also noted that CO2 laser therapy achieved the best overall results among several types of laser therapy — the 1064-nm Nd: YAG laser had a highly successful cure rate and a good safety profile.

While the overall success rate was about 63% — slightly lower than medication treatments — laser therapy may offer a more suitable option due to the risk of side effects associated with medication use. Other types of lasers may also be effective and safe.

A person should discuss with the clinic what types of lasers they use and the general success rate when scheduling a session.

Laser treatment is generally safe. Some people report mild discomfort and the feeling of heat when undergoing treatment.

However, one of the advantages of laser therapy is the reduction in risks. Oral medications carry the risk of liver damage or kidney or gastrointestinal reactions.

As a result, laser treatment may be safer for children, pregnant people, and those with underlying conditions.

There are several established treatments for nail fungus that a dermatologist may recommend. Some additional therapies for nail fungus include:

  • Topical antifungal creams: A person applies the cream directly to the nail based on the doctor’s directions.
  • Oral medications: A healthcare professional may prescribe antifungal medication as a more aggressive form of treatment.
  • Combination therapy: This approach uses both creams and oral medications.
  • Nail removal: In severe cases or when the fungus does not respond to other approaches, a healthcare professional may surgically or chemically remove the nail.

When applying creams or taking medication, a person must follow the exact instructions. Forgetting to apply the medication can lead to a worsening infection or one that does not improve as expected.

Learn more about the best medications for nail fungus.

Laser therapy is a newer therapy for nail fungus. While the AAD still considers it an unproven therapy, studies show some promise in its effectiveness and safety, particularly for at-risk populations such as those with kidney or liver disease or pregnant people.

Laser therapy can be expensive, and insurance may not cover it. A person should discuss costs with the service provider and how many sessions they need.