BACKGROUND: Fluconazole has proven to be safe and effective for a variety of superficial and systemic fungal infections. Preliminary analysis of extensive Phase III studies suggests that it is very effective for the treatment of onychomycosis. Its pharmacokinetic properties, including low molecular weight and high water-solubility, suggest a unique ability to penetrate the nail. This feature is likely to account in part for fluconazole's effectiveness in the treatment of onychomycosis. OBJECTIVE: Determinations of plasma and fingernail concentrations of fluconazole were performed as part of a larger study comparing the safety and efficacy of once-weekly fluconazole (150, 300, and 450 mg) to placebo in the treatment of distal subungual onychomycosis of the fingernails caused by dermatophytes. The relationship between fluconazole concentrations and efficacy was also examined. METHODS: Pharmacokinetic studies were performed by means of plasma and fingernail samples from 133 patients, a subset of 349 patients participating in a double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial of fluconazole administered in once-weekly doses of 150, 300, or 450 mg until cure of onychomycosis or for a maximum of 9 months. Blood and fingernail samples for pharmacokinetic analysis were taken at baseline, at week 2, and at monthly intervals during the treatment phase of the study. Patients considered clinically cured or improved also participated in a 6-month follow-up study. During this phase, patients were monitored and samples taken every 2 months. RESULTS: Significant amounts of fluconazole were detected in the earliest fingernail samples taken (after 2 weeks of treatment). After two weekly doses, 30% to 33% of steady-state concentrations had been achieved in healthy nails and 22% to 29% in affected nails. Steady state was achieved in 3 to 5 months. Fluconazole concentration in nails as well as plasma followed dose-proportional pharmacokinetics. Nail:plasma ratios in affected nails were 0.4 to 0.6 at 2 weeks and 1.7 to 1.8 at 6 months. Fluconazole concentrations fell slowly after drug discontinuation and were still detectable 4 months after end of treatment. A statistically significant correlation was found between steady-state concentration and clinical and global outcomes. CONCLUSION: Fluconazole rapidly penetrates the fingernail, where it is retained at detectable levels for at least 4 months after drug discontinuation. A significant correlation exists between fluconazole concentration in the fingernails and clinical and global outcomes.