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Nail Lifting, or Onycholysis: Why Does It Happen?

By HERWriter
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onycholysis: what happens when a nail is lifted Stockbyte/Thinkstock

Nail lifting (onycholysis) occurs when a fingernail or toenail separates from its nail bed. As the end of the nail begins to lift away, it may look like a half moon or the free edge can appear like a hood laying over the nail bed, still attached.

Unfortunately, dirt and moisture can accumulate under the nail permitting fungus or bacteria to grow and an infection can develop.

What causes a nail to loosen and lift up in the first place?

According to Inteliheath.com, the most common cause of onycholysis is trauma. Trauma can mean actually having an injury to the nail, like banging it against something, but it can also be from repetitive activities like tapping your fingernails on a keyboard.

In addition, trauma can occur from too rough a manicure to clean dirt under the nails or using your nails like a tool to pry something up.

Certain medical conditions can cause onycholysis.

Psoriasis is the most common due to abnormal changes in the nail’s growth. Certain medications such as psorlen can weaken the nail and some antibiotics such as tetracycline can cause the nail to lift after exposure to sunlight.

Chemotherapy can affect nail growth and attachment to the nail bed. Fungal infections can cause the nail to thicken so it does not lie smoothly allowing the nail edge to lift. An overactive thyroid has also been found to cause onycholysis.

How the nail appears

The nail may look white or discolored and have an irregular border. If there are other conditions such as fungus or psoriasis, the nail may have thickened skin underneath or be deformed in other ways such as having indentations or a bent shape. Unless the nail is lifted from trauma, there is little pain from a nail that develops onycholysis.


Gently clip the unattached part of the nail back to keep lifted edges from catching on anything, which may tear the nail off suddenly. See a doctor for assistance if needed. Wear some type of bandaid covering to tape down the remaining nail to keep it secure.

Seek treatment for any medical causes of the onycholysis with a doctor. Fungal nail infections usually need long treatment times and possibly different medications depending on how severe the infection is. Thyroid levels and medication management may need to be checked. Psoriasis treatments may also need to be adjusted.


Avoid using your nails as scrapers or other tools. Wear rubber gloves while cleaning and scrubbing during household tasks or when your hands are going to be immersed for long periods in water. Nails expand and shrink from excessive water exposure making them more susceptible to damage.


Onycholysis. Aetna Intelihealth. Retrieved Sept. 24, 2012.

Nail Lifting (Onycholysis). Skin Sight. Retrieved Sept. 24, 2012.

Onycholysis. Drugs.com. Retrieved Sept. 24, 2012.

Michele is an R.N. freelance writer with a special interest in woman’s healthcare and quality of care issues. Other articles by Michele are at www.helium.com/users/487540/show_articles

Edited by Jody Smith

Add a Comment8 Comments

EmpowHER Guest

I had fungus on my large tow nail and second toe. I put vicks on it and it went away. There is a strong anti fungal in vicks that kills the fungus...

April 14, 2018 - 5:44pm
EmpowHER Guest

Both my thumbs & pointer finger nails are lifted,have been for yrs,i use to wear fake nails,sometimes ripping them off,instead of soaking them, but that was many yrs ago,over 15yrs ago,my one thumb is now black,i bought over the counter fungus medicine,but its not working...the lifting is just those 4 fingers,what can i do...i do not have good insurance hat will cover a dermatologist. .thk you kindly

July 12, 2017 - 4:19pm
EmpowHER Guest

I had the disorder affecting 7 fingernails. Ended up being from a low thyroid. Once my thyroid was treated, my nails began to respond and heal

August 31, 2016 - 6:49am
EmpowHER Guest

I went to a new nail salon and ended up getting a fungus under both my big toes. Now they are completely black and have lifted almost as far back as my cuticle. My small toes look just fine but my big toes are horrible! I was told as a home remedy to soak my toes in baking soda and vinegar, is this a valid home remedy?

September 20, 2015 - 5:01pm
HERWriter (reply to Anonymous)

Anon, Please go see a podiatrist and don't try and self treat yourself.

Let us know what the doctor said.


take care,


September 20, 2015 - 6:34pm
EmpowHER Guest

If you think you should see a doctor, I'd suggest a dermatologist.

March 23, 2015 - 11:25am

I'm not sure I follow all you have written.  I suggest you see a podiatrist to evaluate your nail and see what other treatment might help.  The treatment you used is an antifungal in a nail polish.  There are other antifungals that may be tried.  Nail polish should be avoided.

 It usually takes weeks of topical treatment to get nail fungus to go away.  The doctor might suggest oral therapy if your nail is very bad but you will have to decide with the doctor what is best for you.


November 20, 2012 - 5:15am

i believe i picked up toenail fungal from a nail salon . i treated it with footlogics # 7 with clitromizal i thought it was almost gone decided to put polish back on for i week , when i took it off my nail lifting had traveled all the way to bottom of nail any suggestions i cant afford lazer treatment.

November 19, 2012 - 11:14pm
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.