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What nails reveal about your health

Created date

February 20th, 2014
fingernail health
fingernail health

“Your nails are a window to what’s going on in your body,” says Eliot M. Mostow, M.D., chief of dermatology at Akron General Medical Center in Akron, Ohio. “You can’t assume that a change in your nail’s appearance is just a local problem, such as a fungal infection. It might mean you have another condition that needs attention such as diabetes, heart disease, or liver problems.”

Changes in growth rate

“Nails don’t grow as quickly as we get older,” Mostow explains. “Because of this, they may become somewhat thicker and develop some debris under the nail.” 

The rate of nail growth can also be affected by someone’s nutritional status, a chronic illness, or medications. “A fingernail takes about six months to grow out from the cuticle to the end,” Mostow says.

Visible and invisible problems

Some subtle changes in shape, color, thickness, or strength can occur because of aging and may be minor or cosmetic problems. White spots here and there sometimes appear after some sort of injury to the nail itself. Large patches of white might be something else. “If the nail has a large whitish area at the end, side or base of the nail, it could be a condition called onycholysis,” Mostow says. “This occurs when the nail separates from the nail bed. Certain medications, trauma, or infections are possible causes of this condition.”

Fungal infections make up about half of all nail problems. “Fungal infections can make nails appear thick and yellow,” says Brian Tremaine, M.D., medical director at Trace, an Erickson Living community in Houston, Tex. “This infection can become quite extensive and cause problems such as foot pain, inflammation, or a bacterial infection.”

“Fungal infections are often neglected and can take some time to heal. They also have a high rate of recurrence.” Mostow adds.

Other problems might be benign or indicate something else. “Beau’s lines are horizontal lines on the nail,” Mostow says. “They can appear a few months after a trauma, surgery, or medical event. They can also have a systemic cause.

“If your nails are starting to fall off, it can be a sign of an underlying health condition,” Mostow explains. “Brittle nails can signal problems such as thyroid disease or a nutritional deficiency. Nail fold tenderness can be a sign of a bacterial infection called paronychia.”

Vertical lines caused by leaking blood can mean something very serious is going on. “Splinter hemorrhages are small brown or black streaks that are sometimes a sign of a heart valve infection or vasculitis,” Mostow says. “If you see these marks appear, seek medical attention.”

Skin cancer can show up in nails, too. “Melanoma can occur in the nail bed.  We forget that melanomas are not all caused by the sun, although fingers and toes do also get significant sun exposure throughout your life,” Mostow explains.

Toenails need extra attention

“Problems with dexterity or flexibility may make it hard to care for fingernails,” Tremaine says. “More often, conditions that cause joint stiffness such as arthritis can make it difficult for people to care for their toenails.”

Ingrown toenail and fungal infections are common problems among seniors. “People with diabetes or peripheral neuropathy may have decreased feeling in their feet and may not notice a toenail problem right away,” Tremaine says. “What starts out as a minor issue can quickly turn into a significant wound or infection.”

“Sometimes a wound that develops from an ingrown toenail might be the first sign of an undiagnosed medical condition,” Mostow adds. To avoid ingrown toenails, cut the nail straight across without tapering the corners.

“People who have been active throughout their lives may not think about how their shoes can cause problems with ingrown toenails,” Tremaine says. “People might walk differently and that can also affect balance and lead to a fall.”

A podiatrist can help prevent toenail conditions. “Regular appointments with a podiatrist should be on all seniors’ calendars,” Tremaine says.

Any nail changes should be brought to the attention of your doctor, just like other health symptoms. “Care for your nails as diligently as you care for the rest of your body,” Mostow says. “You can avoid a serious complication if you catch a problem in the early stages.” 


Fun facts about nail growth

• Fingernails grow an average of 3.5 millimeters per month. 

• Toenails grow about 1.6 millimeters per month.

• Except during pregnancy, women’s nails grow more slowly than men’s.

• Nails grow faster in summer than in winter.

Source: American Academy of Dermatology


Safety at the salon

Protect yourself when you go out for a manicure or pedicure by following these tips:

• Check for cleanliness at the salon and manicure stations.

• Make sure implements are clean and intact, or bring your own.

• Ask technicians to wash their hands between clients.

• To prevent infection, do not permit technicians to cut or push back cuticles.