Can Your Nails Show Signs of an Illness?

Color, thickness and shape may signal health issues

A pair of hands  with nails ready to be examined for any signs of health issues.

Color, thickness and shape may signal health issues

Fingernails help protect the delicate tops of fingers from injury — and come in handy when you want to peel an orange or scratch an itch.

Healthy nails are strong with pink nailbeds, but problems — such as white spots, ridges, thickening and changes to nail color or texture — are common.

“Most of the time, these are harmless changes due to lifestyle or to a nail injury,” says Aracely Bonilla Navarrete, MD, an internal medicine physician at Scripps Coastal Medical Center Hillcrest.

“However, in some cases they may be a sign of health issues, such as nutritional imbalances or thyroid problems.”

Here is an overview of the most common nail changes, what may be causing them and when to see a doctor.

What are texture changes?

Thin or soft nails

Thin or soft nails break or tear easily or may bend before breaking. Often, these changes are due to exposure to chemicals — such as detergents or nail polish remover. Low levels of B vitamins, calcium or iron also may be to blame.

Cracked or split nails

Usually, nails split or crack because they are dry or brittle. Surprisingly, dry nails can result from frequently soaking your nails in water while washing dishes, bathing kids or swimming. Nail polish, nail polish remover and alcohol-based hand sanitizers may also contribute.

Dry, cracked nails may be linked to thyroid disease; if the problem persists, contact your doctor.

Peeling nails

Nails may peel off in layers in response to trauma — such as from using your nails as tools to open packages, scraping hard surfaces or picking at old nail polish. Oversoaking nails also can lead to peeling.

Pitted nails

Do your nails look like someone took an icepick to them? Tiny indentations in the nails may be related to psoriasis, which also causes dry, scaly skin patches, or to alopecia areata, an autoimmune disease that causes hair loss.

Spoon nails

If your nails look “scooped out” like a spoon, you may have anemia, hypothyroidism or liver problems. Contact your doctor to find out what’s causing the condition.

Ridges or ripples

Ridges in your nails may be age-related. Horizontal ridges, also known as Beau’s lines, that run across the nail indicate that your nail growth slowed or stopped and that it could be related to a health condition. Common causes include high fever, vitamin deficiency, injury, diabetes and peripheral vascular disease. Chemotherapy may also cause these lines.

If the condition persists, check with your doctor.

Curved nails

Curved or “clubbed” nails happen when the fingertips enlarge and the growing nails curve around them. This is a gradual process that often develops over several years and may be inherited, or may be associated with lung disease, inflammatory bowel disease, cardiovascular disease or liver disease. Call your doctor to have clubbed nails evaluated and rule out that it could be from an underlying disease.

Ram’s horns

Thick, overgrown nails that resemble the horns of a ram may be hereditary or caused by conditions including psoriasis or poor circulation.

“People with this condition should not attempt to trim their nails at home,” says Dr. Bonilla Navarrete. “They need to be trimmed with special instruments to prevent further injury or infection, and treatment is also needed.”

Nail separate from nailbed

Nails may separate from the nailbed because of injury or infection. The detached nail may turn white with a yellow or greenish tint and may be tender or painful. In some cases, a separated nail may be linked to psoriasis or other illnesses. If the nail does not grow out normally, see a doctor for diagnosis and treatment.

What are color changes?

Very pale nails

Healthy nails are generally pink. Very pale nails may indicate illnesses, such as anemia, congestive heart failure or liver disease. Poor nutrition also may be a culprit. It’s a good idea to get very pale nails checked by a doctor.

White spots

Random white spots that appear on the nails are generally harmless and caused by an injury — such as striking the fingertip or repeated trauma to the nails from frequent manicures. Other potential causes include a zinc deficiency, fungal infection or allergic reaction.

Blue nails

Nails may take on a bluish tinge if the body lacks adequate oxygen. Heart disease and emphysema may cause this. If you aren’t under a doctor’s care for an oxygen-related condition, make an appointment to find out what is causing the color change.

Yellow nails

Yellow nails are common and may have various causes, ranging from dark nail polish stains, smoking to an infection. A fungal infection may cause the nails to thicken, crumble or detach from the nail bed. More serious possibilities include rheumatoid arthritis, respiratory disease, thyroid disease and diabetes. If the condition persists or worsens, call your doctor.

Dark lines underneath the nail

Dark lines that appear beneath the nail may be caused by melanoma, a serious type of skin cancer. Have these checked out by a doctor as soon as possible.

“Having any of these changes does not mean you have an underlying health condition. However, if you are concerned about your nails, play it safe and call your doctor,” Dr. Bonilla Navarrete says.

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