CAM 20189

Laser Treatment of Onychomycosis

Category:Medicine   Last Reviewed:June 2019
Department(s):Medical Affairs   Next Review:June 2020
Original Date:June 2013    

Onychomycosis is a common fungal infection of the nail. Currently available treatments for onychomycosis, including systemic and topical antifungal medications, have relatively low efficacy and require a long course of treatment. Laser systems are proposed as another treatment option.

For individuals who have onychomycosis who receive treatment with laser therapy, the evidence includes small randomized controlled trials (RCTs). Relevant outcomes are symptoms, change in disease status, medication use and treatment-related morbidity. Some of the available RCTs have reported improvements in clinical outcomes with laser treatment, but these trials have mixed results and methodologic limitations. Clinical and mycological outcomes sometimes differed in the trials, which may be due in part to lack of consistent blinding of outcome assessment. The published evidence to date does not permit determining whether laser treatment improves health outcomes in patients with onychomycosis. Additional well-designed, adequately powered and well-conducted RCTs are needed. The evidence is insufficient to determine the effects of the technology on health outcomes.

Onychomycosis is a common chronic fungal infection of the nail. It is estimated to cause up to 50% of all nail disease and 33% of cutaneous fungal infections.1 The condition can affect toenails or fingernails but is more frequently found in toenails. Primary infectious agents include dermatophytes (e.g., Trichophyton species), yeasts (e.g., Candida albicans), and nondermatophytic molds. In temperate Western countries, infections are generally caused by dermatophytes.

Aging is the most common risk factor for onychomycosis, most likely due to decreased blood circulation, longer exposure to fungi, and slower nail growth. Also, various medical conditions increase the risk of comorbid onychomycosis. They include diabetes, obesity, peripheral vascular disease, immunosuppression, and HIV infection. In certain populations, onychomycosis may lead to additional health problems. Although there is limited evidence of a causal link between onychomycosis and diabetic foot ulcers, at least 1 prospective study with diabetic patients found onychomycosis to be an independent predictor of foot ulcer.2 Moreover, onychomycosis, especially more severe cases, may adversely impact the quality of life. Patients with onychomycosis have reported pain, uncomfortable nail pressure, embarrassment, and discomfort wearing shoes.3,4  

The diagnosis of onychomycosis can be confirmed by potassium hydroxide preparation, culture, or histology.

Treatments for onychomycosis include topical antifungals such as nail paints containing ciclopirox (ciclopiroxolamine) or amorolfine and oral antifungals such as terbinafine and itraconazole. These have low-to-moderate efficacy and a high relapse rate. Topical antifungals and some long-available oral medications (eg, griseofulvin) require a long course of treatment, which presents issues for patient compliance. Moreover, oral antifungal medications have been associated with adverse effects such as a risk of hepatotoxicity.

Several types of device-based therapies are under investigation for the treatment of onychomycosis, including ultrasound, iontophoresis, photodynamic therapy, and laser systems. A potential advantage of lasers is that they have greater tissue penetration than antifungal medication and thus may be more effective at treating infection embedded within the nail. Another potential advantage is that laser treatments are provided in a clinical setting in only one or several sessions and, thus, requires less long-term patient compliance. 

Laser treatment of onychomycosis uses the principle of selective photothermolysis. This is defined as the precise targeting of tissue using a specific wavelength of light. The premise is that light is absorbed into the target area and heat generated by that energy is sufficient to damage the target area while sparing the surrounding area. The aim of laser treatment for onychomycosis is to heat the nail bed to temperatures required to disrupt fungal growth (approximately 40º -60º C) and at the same time avoid pain and necrosis to surrounding tissues.

 Characteristics of laser systems used to treat onychomycosis are listed in Table 1. 

Table 1. Characteristics of Lasers for Treating Onychomycosis

Variables Characteristics 
Wavelength Lasers are single-wavelength light sources. There needs to be sufficient tissue penetration to adequately treat nail fungus. The near-infrared spectrum tends to be used because this is the part of the spectrum that has maximum tissue penetrance in the dermis and epidermis and the nail plate is similar to the epidermis. To date, most laser systems for treating onychomycosis have been Neodymium yttrium aluminum garnet (Nd:YAG) lasers that are typically operated at 1064 nm; 940- to 1320-nm and 1440-nm wavelengths are also options.
Pulse duration Pulses need to be short to avoid damage to the tissue surrounding the target area. For example, short-pulse systems have microsecond pulse durations and Q-switched lasers have nanosecond pulse durations.
Repetition rate (frequency of pulses, in hertz): Spot size to the diameter of the laser beam. For treating onychomycosis, laser spot sizes range from 1 to 10 nm.
Fluence (in J/cm²) Fluence refers to the amount of energy delivered into the area

Regulatory Status 
Multiple Nd:YAG laser systems have been cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for marketing for the temporary increase of clear nail in patients with onychomycosis. FDA determined that these devices were substantially equivalent to existing devices. Table 2 lists select approved laser systems.

Table 2. Select Laser Systems Approved for Temporary Increase of Clear Nail in Patients With Onychomycosis

Device Manufacturer Approved
Nd: YAG 1,064-nm laser systems
PinPointe FootLaser  PinPointe USA (acquired by NuvoLase 2011) 2010
GenesisPlus Cutera 2011
VariaBreeze CoolTouch 2011
JOULE ClearSense Sciton 2011
GentleMax Family of Laser Systems Candela 2014
Nordlys Ellipse A/S 2016
Dual wavelength Nd: YAG 1,064-nm and 532-nm laser system
Q-Clear Light Age 2011

Nd:YAG 1064-nm laser systems (FDA product code: GEX); dual wavelength Nd:YAG 1,064-nm and 532-nm laser system (FDA product code: PDX).

Related Policies
20171 Nonpharmacologic Treatment of Rosacea
70140 Laser Treatment of Port Wine Stains

Laser treatment of onychomycosis is considered INVESTIGATIONAL.

Policy Guidelines
There is no specific CPT code for this treatment. It would likely be reported using an unlisted CPT code such as 17999 (Unlisted procedure, skin, mucous membrane and subcutaneous tissue) or 96999 (Unlisted special dermatological service or procedure).

Benefit Application:
BlueCard®/National Account Issues
State or federal mandates (e.g., FEP) may dictate that all devices approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may not be considered investigational. Therefore, FDA-approved devices may be assessed only on the basis of their medical necessity.

The approach to laser treatment of onychomycosis will depend on benefit language related to definitions of medically necessary, reconstructive and cosmetic services. Procedures are considered reconstructive when intended to address a significant variation from normal related to accidental injury, disease, trauma, treatment of a disease or congenital defect. Not all benefit contracts include benefits for reconstructive services. Benefit language supersedes this document.

Evidence reviews assess the clinical evidence to determine whether the use of technology improves the net health outcome. Broadly defined, health outcomes are the length of life, quality of life, and ability to function -- including benefits and harms. Every clinical condition has specific outcomes that are important to patients and managing the course of that condition. Validated outcome measures are necessary to ascertain whether a condition improves or worsens; and whether the magnitude of that change is clinically significant. The net health outcome is a balance of benefits and harms.

To assess whether the evidence is sufficient to draw conclusions about the net health outcome of technology, two domains are examined: the relevance, and quality and credibility. To be relevant, studies must represent one or more intended clinical uses of the technology in the intended population and compare an effective and appropriate alternative at a comparable intensity. For some conditions, the alternative will be supportive care or surveillance. The quality and credibility of the evidence depend on study design and conduct, minimizing bias and confounding that can generate incorrect findings. The randomized controlled trial (RCT) is preferred to assess efficacy; however, in some circumstances, nonrandomized studies may be adequate. RCTs are rarely large enough or long enough to capture less common adverse events and long-term effects. Other types of studies can be used for these purposes and to assess generalizability to broader clinical populations and settings of clinical practice.

Laser treatment for onychomycosis
Clinical Context and Therapy Purpose
The purpose of laser treatment in patients who have onychomycosis is to provide a treatment option that is an alternative to or an improvement on existing therapies.

The question addressed in this evidence review is: Does the use of laser treatment improve the net health outcome compared with topical antifungal nail lacquer or oral antifungal therapy in patients who have onychomycosis?

The following PICOTS were used to select literature to inform this review.

The relevant population of interest are patients with onychomycosis.

The therapy being considered is laser treatment. Laser treatment allows for precise targeting of the fungal areas with enough heat to disrupt growth while avoiding damage to surrounding tissues. Two types of lasers have been developed to treat onychomycosis: neodymium-doped:yttrium aluminum garnet (Nd:YAG) and diode lasers.

Current treatments for onychomycosis include topical antifungal nail lacquer and oral antifungal therapy. These treatments typically require long courses, which result in poor patient compliance and high relapse rates. Nail lacquers contain ciclopirox or amorolfine. Oral medications are terbinafine and itraconazole, which have been associated with a risk of hepatotoxicity.

The general outcomes of interest are symptom relief (eg, clear nail growth), change in disease status (eg, mycologic remission or Onychomycosis Severity Scale scores), reduction in medication use, and treatment-related morbidity.

Clinical response can be measured after laser treatment (three-six months). To determine remission rates, follow-up may last a year or more.

Laser treatments are performed in outpatient centers.

Study Selection Criteria
To assess efficacy outcomes, comparative controlled prospective trials were sought, with a preference for RCTs.

Systematic Reviews
A systematic review by Bristow et al (2014) identified 12 published studies on laser treatment for onychomycosis in a literature search conducted in June 2014.6, Two were RCTs, four were nonrandomized comparative studies with no placebo or control group, and six were case series. Bristow did not pool study findings, concluding the evidence was limited and of poor methodologic quality.

Randomized Controlled Trials
Representative RCTs published after the systematic review, with the largest sample sizes, and comparing laser treatment with placebo or a different intervention are described next.

Karsai et al (2017) reported on a prospective randomized pilot trial with blinded outcome assessment comparing laser treatment (short-pulsed 1064-nm-ND:YAG laser) with control (no laser treatment) in 20 patients with 82 mycotic toenails.7 All patients received treatment with amorolfine cream over the soles of the feet, their intertriginous areas, and the skin directly surrounding the nails. Patients in the laser group received four treatments at intervals of four to six weeks. The trial’s primary endpoint (the proportion of nails with mycologic remission) was not achieved in either group after 12 months. The trial’s secondary endpoint was the clinical appearance of the nails using the Onychomycosis Severity Index, which was assessed by two independent blinded investigators. There were no differences in Onychomycosis Severity Index scores at baseline or at 12-month follow-up. The Onychomycosis Severity Index score worsened by a mean of 2.0 points in the treatment group compared with 3.6 points in the control group (between group change, 1.6 points; 95% confidence interval, -0.7 to 3.9; p=0.553).

Kim et al (2016) compared 1064-nm Nd:YAG laser therapy alone (n=19) with a laser plus topical antifungal therapy (n=18) and topical antifungal therapy alone (n=19) (in the final group; original N enrolled not specified) for 12 weeks. Clinical response rates at 12 weeks were 70.9% in the laser only group, 73.2% in the laser plus topical group, and 14.9% in the topical alone group (p<0.05 for laser and laser plus topical groups vs topical-only group). Cure rates at 24 weeks were 15.2% in the laser only group, 22.5% of the laser plus topical group, and 4.5% of the topical group (p<0.05 for laser and laser plus topical groups vs topical-only group). There was no mention of blinded outcome assessment.

El-Tatawy et al (2015) in Egypt reported on 40 patients with toenail onychomycosis randomized to 4 sessions of treatment with a 1064-nm Nd:YAG laser (n=20) or topical terbinafine twice daily for 6months (n=20).9, The laser was a Dualis SP device (Fotona). The clinical efficacy outcome measure categorized patients into those with a marked improvement (>75%), moderate improvement (50%-75%), mild improvement (25%-50%), or no improvement (<25%). The authors did not state whether the outcome assessment was blinded. At 6 months, 100% of patients in the laser group and none in the medication group showed marked improvement (p<0.002). In the medication group, eight patients had mild improvement, two had moderate improvement, and ten had no improvement. Lack of blinding could have introduced bias in the clinical assessment of patients.

Xu et al (2014) in China randomized 53 patients with toenail onychomycosis to 1 of 3 treatment groups: daily oral terbinafine 250 mg (16 patients, 30 nails), weekly long-pulsed 1064-nm Nd:YAG laser (Luminis One) (18 patients, 31 nails), or a combination of both therapies (n=16 patients, 29 nails).10 The analysiswas done on a per-nail basis. All patients completed the 24-month follow-up. At this final evaluation point, the clinical clearance rate (defined as ≤5% nail plate involvement in onychomycosis) was 22 (73.3%) of 30 nails in the medication-only group, 20 (64.5%) of 31 nails in the laser group, and 28 (96.6%) of 29 nails in the combination treatment group. The rate was significantly higher in the combined treatment group than in either treatment alone; clinical clearance in the medication vs laser group did not differ significantly. Findings were similar for the mycological clearance rate. A trial limitation was its reporting of outcomes on a per-nail basis, which did not account for correlated measurements.

An industry-sponsored study by Landsman et al (2010) used a dual-wavelength near-infrared diode laser that has not been cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for treatment of onychomycosis.11, The trial included 36 patients with mycologically confirmed onychomycosis. Patients were randomized to actual laser treatment (n=26) or sham treatment (n=10). The sham treatment group received the same number of sessions, but laser power was set to zero. Thirty-four (94%) of 36 patients completed the study. These 34 patients had a total of 59 toes treated with an active or sham laser. Thirty-seven toes met all of the clinical eligibility criteria (26 in the active treatment group, 11 in the control group). The primary study outcomes were the proportion of patients who had at least 3 mm of clear nail growth and who attained a negative mycologic finding. As assessed by the blinded expert panel, at 180 days, 17 (65%) of 26 toes in the active treatment group and 1 (9%) of 11 in the control group attained at least 3 mm of clear lineal nail growth. The difference between groups was statistically significant, favoring the active treatment group (p=0.011). Ten (39%) of 26 toes in the active treatment group and 1 (9%) of 11 in the control group had both a negative mycologic culture and at least 3 mm of clear nail growth at 180 days; the difference between groups was not statistically significant (p=0.119). Differences between these two outcomes might be attributed to the subjective nature of the visual assessments.

Landsman and Robbins (2012) reported 270-day results in 36 of 40 treated toes.12, (This included clinically eligible toes as well as companion toes.) When photographs of 34 toes were evaluated, 35% were considered to have continuous improvement, 38% were considered not to have changed for 180 days, and 20% were considered to have worsened. Authors did not report 270-day findings for patients assigned to the sham control group.

Limitations of the two Landsman and Robbins (2012) studies included the intermediate outcome measures used (eg, 3 mm of clear lineal nail growth), which are of uncertain clinical significance. Also, investigators randomized patients to a treatment group and a control group yet presented their findings on a per-nail basis, which did not account for correlated measurements. Three (9%) of the 34 patients evaluated at 180 days contributed data from 2 toes to the analysis.

Summary of Evidence
For individuals who have onychomycosis who receive treatment with laser therapy, the evidence includes small, randomized controlled trials. The relevant outcomes are symptoms, change in disease status, medication use, and treatment-related morbidity. The randomized controlled trials reported inconsistent results and had methodologic limitations. Clinical and mycologic outcomes differed across the trials,lacked consistent blinding of outcome assessments, and often reported outcomes on a per-nail basis without accounting for correlated measurements. The published evidence to date does not permit determining whether laser treatment improves health outcomes in patients with onychomycosis. Additional well-designed, adequately powered, and well-conducted randomized controlled trials are needed. The evidence is insufficient to determine the effects of the technology on health outcomes.

Practice Guidelines and Position Statements
British Association of Dermatologists
The British Association of Dermatologists (2014) issued guidelines on the management of onychomycosis.13, Due to the limited nature of the evidence, the Association concluded that “lasers are showing promising results in the treatment of onychomycosis, but recommendations cannot be made at this stage” (level of evidence 1-).

U.S. Preventive Services Task ForceRecommendations
Not applicable.

Ongoing and Unpublished Clinical Trials
Some currently ongoing and unpublished trials that might influence this review are listed in Table 3.

Table 3. Summary of Key Trials

NCT No. Trial Name Planned Enrollment Completion Date
NCT02812043 Comparison Between Long-pulsed Nd:YAG, Amorolfine and Combination Treatment in Treating Non-dermatophyte Onychomycosis 60 Aug 2018 (ongoing)
NCT02019446 Laser Treatment for Onychomycosis in Diabetes 60 Dec 2021
NCT01996995 Laser Therapy for Onychomycosis in Patients with Diabetes at Risk for Diabetic Foot Complications (LASER-1) 64 Jul 2017 (completed)
NCT01915355 Pulsed Dye Laser Treatment of Onychomycosis 11 Jul 2015 (completed)

NCT: national clinical trial.
a Denotes industry-sponsored or cosponsored trial.


  1. Rodgers P, Bassler M. Treating onychomycosis. Am Fam Physician. Feb 15 2001;63(4):663-672, 677-668. PMID 11237081
  2. Boyko EJ, Ahroni JH, Cohen V, et al. Prediction of diabetic foot ulcer occurrence using commonly available clinical information: the Seattle Diabetic Foot Study. Diabetes Care. Jun 2006;29(6):1202-1207. PMID 16731996
  3. Drake LA, Scher RK, Smith EB, et al. Effect of onychomycosis on quality of life. J Am Acad Dermatol. May 1998;38(5 Pt 1):702-704. PMID 9591814
  4. Elewski BE. Onychomycosis. Treatment, quality of life, and economic issues. Am J Clin Dermatol. Jan-Feb 2000;1(1):19-26. PMID 11702301
  5. Gupta A, Simpson F. Device-based therapies for onychomycosis treatment. Skin Therapy Lett. Oct 2012;17(9):4-9. PMID 23032936
  6. Bristow IR. The effectiveness of lasers in the treatment of onychomycosis: a systematic review. J Foot Ankle Res. Aug 2014;7:34. PMID 25104974
  7. Karsai S, Jager M, Oesterhelt A, et al. Treating onychomycosis with the short-pulsed 1064-nm-Nd:YAG laser: results of a prospective randomized controlled trial. J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol. Jan 2017;31(1):175-180. PMID 27521028
  8. Kim TI, Shin MK, Jeong KH, et al. A randomised comparative study of 1064 nm Neodymium-doped yttrium aluminium garnet (Nd:YAG) laser and topical antifungal treatment of onychomycosis. Mycoses. Jul 12 2016;59(12):803-810. PMID 27402466
  9. El-Tatawy RA, Abd El-Naby NM, El-Hawary EE, et al. A comparative clinical and mycological study of Nd-YAG laser versus topical terbinafine in the treatment of onychomycosis. J Dermatolog Treat. Feb 11 2015:1-4. PMID 25669435
  10. Xu Y, Miao X, Zhou B, et al. Combined oral terbinafine and long-pulsed 1,064-nm Nd: YAG laser treatment is more effective for onychomycosis than either treatment alone. Dermatol Surg. Nov 2014;40(11):1201-1207. PMID 25322165
  11. Landsman AS, Robbins AH, Angelini PF, et al. Treatment of mild, moderate, and severe onychomycosis using 870- and 930-nm light exposure. J Am Podiatr Med Assoc. May-Jun 2010;100(3):166-177. PMID 20479446
  12. Landsman AS, Robbins AH. Treatment of mild, moderate, and severe onychomycosis using 870- and 930-nm light exposure: some follow-up observations at 270 days. J Am Podiatr Med Assoc. Mar-Apr 2012;102(2):169-171. PMID 22461276
  13. Ameen M, Lear JT, Madan V, et al. British Association of Dermatologists' guidelines for the management of onychomycosis 2014. Br J Dermatol. Nov 2014;171(5):937-958. PMID 25409999

Coding Section

Codes Number Description

No specific code. See Policy Guidelines

ICD-9-CM Diagnosis  

Investigational for relevant diagnoses


Dermatophytosis of nail (includes onychomycosis)

ICD-10-CM (effective 10/01/15)  

Investigational for relevant diagnoses


Dermatophytosis - Tinea unguium (includes onychomycosis)

ICD-10-PCS (effective 10/01/15)  

ICD-10-PCS codes are only used for inpatient services. There is no specific ICD-10-PCS code for this procedure.



Surgical, skin/breast, destruction, nail code range (codes for toe or finger nail)

Type of Service    
Place of Service    

Procedure and diagnosis codes on Medical Policy documents are included only as a general reference tool for each policy. They may not be all-inclusive.  

This medical policy was developed through consideration of peer-reviewed medical literature generally recognized by the relevant medical community, U.S. FDA approval status, nationally accepted standards of medical practice and accepted standards of medical practice in this community, Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association technology assessment program (TEC) and other non-affiliated technology evaluation centers, reference to federal regulations, other plan medical policies and accredited national guidelines.

"Current Procedural Terminology© American Medical Association.  All Rights Reserved" 

History From 2014 Forward     


Annual review, no change to policy intent. Updating rationale and references.


Annual review, no change to policy intent. Updating background, rationale and references. 


Annual review, no change to policy intent. Updating background, description, regulatory status, rationale and references. 


Annual review, no change to policy intent. 


Annual review, no change to policy intent. Updated background, description, rationale and references. Added coding and guidelines.


Annual review. Added related policies, no change to policy intent.

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