By Gerra Lewis
Q: Can the condition of your fingernails provide clues to your overall health?
A: Many bothersome fingernail conditions can be avoided through proper nail care but sometimes changes in your nails might indicate an underlying health condition.
Fingernails are composed of layers of hardened protein called keratin. Healthy fingernails are smooth, consistent in color and texture and free from spots or discoloration. We’ll review a few of the more common problems in this article. Additional information can be found in the resources listed in the “Where to find it” section.
Brittle nails are common. This issue is often caused by repeated wetting and drying of fingernails but may also be a sign of hypothyroidism or low iron levels.
Soft or weak nails break easily or bend. This condition can be related to exposure to moisture or chemicals but may be associated with deficiencies of B vitamins, calcium, iron or fatty acids.
Using your fingernails as a tool can cause trauma to the nails resulting in breakage or peeling. In the absence of nail trauma, this finding could indicate an iron deficiency. One way to tell whether peeling is a result of an internal or external cause is to check your toenails for similar signs. Trauma to the nails can also cause red or brown spots. However, if you haven’t had nail trauma, this could be indicative of a more serious condition such as endocarditis or melanoma.
Vertical ridges tend to appear later in life and typically are not a cause for concern unless accompanied by other nail problems. Deep horizontal ridges (Beau’s lines) are formed when the nail stops growing for a period of time. This can happen with stress or illness and occasionally can signal a serious health issue such as acute kidney disease, thyroid disease, diabetes or several other health conditions. Chemotherapy may also cause these ridges.
Nails can become discolored. Yellow nails can be caused by a reaction to a product such as nail polish but are most often seen in fungal infection. The infected nails may also become thickened and crumbly. Occasionally yellow nails are a sign of a condition such as thyroid disease, diabetes or psoriasis. White spots can appear after trauma to the nails, but could also point to a zinc deficiency.
This brief article covers only a small number of the changes that can occur in fingernails. Remember that most nail conditions are localized and can be controlled by good nail hygiene. In addition, a nutritious diet providing the vitamins and minerals that your body needs to stay healthy will help keep your nails in good condition. But always consult your doctor or dermatologist if you have concerns.
Gerra Lewis volunteers with the Grillo Center, which offers free, confidential research to assist in health understanding and decisions. To use this service, contact grillocenter.org or 303-415-7293. No research or assistance should be interpreted as medical advice. We encourage informed consultation with a health practitioner.
Where to find it
Google: webmd nails and health
American Academy of Dermatology Association
Google: aad 12 nail changes
Google: 8 fingernail signs
Google: mayo clinic healthy nails