Oral antifungal medication for toenail onychomycosis

Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2017 Jul 14;7(7):CD010031. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD010031.pub2.


Background: Fungal infection of the toenails, also called onychomycosis, is a common problem that causes damage to the nail's structure and physical appearance. For those severely affected, it can interfere with normal daily activities. Treatment is taken orally or applied topically; however, traditionally topical treatments have low success rates due to the nail's physical properties. Oral treatments also appear to have shorter treatment times and better cure rates. Our review will assist those needing to make an evidence-based choice for treatment.

Objectives: To assess the effects of oral antifungal treatments for toenail onychomycosis.

Search methods: We searched the following databases up to October 2016: the Cochrane Skin Group Specialised Register, CENTRAL, MEDLINE, Embase, and LILACS. We also searched five trials registers and checked the reference lists of included and excluded studies for further references to relevant randomised controlled trials (RCTs). We sought to identify unpublished and ongoing trials by correspondence with authors and by contacting relevant pharmaceutical companies.

Selection criteria: RCTs comparing oral antifungal treatment to placebo or another oral antifungal treatment in participants with toenail onychomycosis, confirmed by one or more positive cultures, direct microscopy of fungal elements, or histological examination of the nail.

Data collection and analysis: We used standard methodological procedures expected by Cochrane.

Main results: We included 48 studies involving 10,200 participants. Half the studies took place in more than one centre and were conducted in outpatient dermatology settings. The participants mainly had subungual fungal infection of the toenails. Study duration ranged from 4 months to 2 years.We assessed one study as being at low risk of bias in all domains and 18 studies as being at high risk of bias in at least one domain. The most common high-risk domain was 'blinding of personnel and participants'.We found high-quality evidence that terbinafine is more effective than placebo for achieving clinical cure (risk ratio (RR) 6.00, 95% confidence interval (CI) 3.96 to 9.08, 8 studies, 1006 participants) and mycological cure (RR 4.53, 95% CI 2.47 to 8.33, 8 studies, 1006 participants). Adverse events amongst terbinafine-treated participants included gastrointestinal symptoms, infections, and headache, but there was probably no significant difference in their risk between the groups (RR 1.13, 95% CI 0.87 to 1.47, 4 studies, 399 participants, moderate-quality evidence).There was high-quality evidence that azoles were more effective than placebo for achieving clinical cure (RR 22.18, 95% CI 12.63 to 38.95, 9 studies, 3440 participants) and mycological cure (RR 5.86, 95% CI 3.23 to 10.62, 9 studies, 3440 participants). There were slightly more adverse events in the azole group (the most common being headache, flu-like symptoms, and nausea), but the difference was probably not significant (RR 1.04, 95% CI 0.97 to 1.12; 9 studies, 3441 participants, moderate-quality evidence).Terbinafine and azoles may lower the recurrence rate when compared, individually, to placebo (RR 0.05, 95% CI 0.01 to 0.38, 1 study, 35 participants; RR 0.55, 95% CI 0.29 to 1.07, 1 study, 26 participants, respectively; both low-quality evidence).There is moderate-quality evidence that terbinafine was probably more effective than azoles for achieving clinical cure (RR 0.82, 95% CI 0.72 to 0.95, 15 studies, 2168 participants) and mycological cure (RR 0.77, 95% CI 0.68 to 0.88, 17 studies, 2544 participants). There was probably no difference in the risk of adverse events (RR 1.00, 95% CI 0.86 to 1.17; 9 studies, 1762 participants, moderate-quality evidence) between the two groups, and there may be no difference in recurrence rate (RR 1.11, 95% CI 0.68 to 1.79, 5 studies, 282 participants, low-quality evidence). Common adverse events in both groups included headache, viral infection, and nausea.Moderate-quality evidence shows that azoles and griseofulvin probably had similar efficacy for achieving clinical cure (RR 0.94, 95% CI 0.45 to 1.96, 5 studies, 222 participants) and mycological cure (RR 0.87, 95% CI 0.50 to 1.51, 5 studies, 222 participants). However, the risk of adverse events was probably higher in the griseofulvin group (RR 2.41, 95% CI 1.56 to 3.73, 2 studies, 143 participants, moderate-quality evidence), with the most common being gastrointestinal disturbance and allergic reaction (in griseofulvin-treated participants) along with nausea and vomiting (in azole-treated participants). Very low-quality evidence means we are uncertain about this comparison's impact on recurrence rate (RR 4.00, 0.26 to 61.76, 1 study, 7 participants).There is low-quality evidence that terbinafine may be more effective than griseofulvin in terms of clinical cure (RR 0.32, 95% CI 0.14 to 0.72, 4 studies, 270 participants) and mycological cure (RR 0.64, 95% CI 0.46 to 0.90, 5 studies, 465 participants), and griseofulvin was associated with a higher risk of adverse events, although this was based on low-quality evidence (RR 2.09, 95% CI 1.15 to 3.82, 2 studies, 100 participants). Common adverse events included headache and stomach problems (in griseofulvin-treated participants) as well as taste loss and nausea (in terbinafine-treated participants). No studies addressed recurrence rate for this comparison.No study addressed quality of life.

Authors' conclusions: We found high-quality evidence that compared to placebo, terbinafine and azoles are effective treatments for the mycological and clinical cure of onychomycosis, with moderate-quality evidence of excess harm. However, terbinafine probably leads to better cure rates than azoles with the same risk of adverse events (moderate-quality evidence).Azole and griseofulvin were shown to probably have a similar effect on cure, but more adverse events appeared to occur with the latter (moderate-quality evidence). Terbinafine may improve cure and be associated with fewer adverse effects when compared to griseofulvin (low-quality evidence).Only four comparisons assessed recurrence rate: low-quality evidence found that terbinafine or azoles may lower the recurrence rate when compared to placebo, but there may be no difference between them.Only a limited number of studies reported adverse events, and the severity of the events was not taken into account.Overall, the quality of the evidence varied widely from high to very low depending on the outcome and comparison. The main reasons to downgrade evidence were limitations in study design, such as unclear allocation concealment and randomisation as well as lack of blinding.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Administration, Oral
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Antifungal Agents / administration & dosage
  • Antifungal Agents / adverse effects
  • Antifungal Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Azoles / administration & dosage
  • Azoles / adverse effects
  • Azoles / therapeutic use*
  • Female
  • Foot Dermatoses / drug therapy*
  • Griseofulvin / administration & dosage
  • Griseofulvin / adverse effects
  • Griseofulvin / therapeutic use*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Naphthalenes / administration & dosage
  • Naphthalenes / adverse effects
  • Naphthalenes / therapeutic use*
  • Onychomycosis / drug therapy*
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Recurrence
  • Secondary Prevention
  • Terbinafine


  • Antifungal Agents
  • Azoles
  • Naphthalenes
  • Griseofulvin
  • Terbinafine