What Your Nails Say About Your Health

Dr. Janet Zand

August 21, 2020



Did you know your nails can tell you a lot about your health?

Well, it’s true! Your nails can even be an early warning sign of bigger problems in your liver, lungs, and heart.

Want to know what your nails say about your health? Here’s what to look for...

Yellow Nails

Sometimes yellow nails are simply stained nails, caused by using a product like nail polish.

However, any new nail growth should be a healthy, clear color. If your nails are growing in yellow, there may be something else going on in your body.

One of the most common causes of yellow nails is a fungal infection. As the infection worsens, the nail bed may retract, and nails may thicken and crumble.

Or, in rare cases, yellow nails can indicate a more serious condition such as thyroid disease, lung disease, diabetes, or psoriasis.

For any of these conditions, it’s important to start with a diagnosis from your doctor.

Cracked or Split Nails

If your dry, brittle nails also have a yellow hue, you probably have a fungal infection.

But frequent cracks or splits without a yellow hue could be a sign of thyroid disease.

The thyroid is responsible for maintaining your metabolism, but it also plays a role in growing skin, hair, and nails. So people with thyroid disease often experience nail problems, including dry, cracked, and brittle nails.

Pale or White Nails

Pale fingernails can just be part of aging. In which case, there’s no cause for concern. However, sometimes pale nails signal more serious health problems.

For instance, if all of your nails turn white with a pink band at the top of the nail bed, it might be a condition called Terry’s nails, named for Dr. Richard Terry.

Dr. Terry found that this particular nail pattern was associated with cirrhosis of the liver.

In fact, one study found that 80% of patients with severe liver disease have Terry's nails. And Terry's nails are also found in people with kidney failure and in patients with congestive heart failure.

So recognizing Terry’s nails could help someone get to their doctor and get a diagnosis earlier.

Bluish Nails

If you’re out in cold weather, it can be normal for your fingernails to turn a little blue.

That’s because cold temperatures make your blood vessels constrict. And the constricted blood vessels make it difficult for your nails to get enough oxygen-rich blood.

However, if fingernails remain blue even after you’ve warmed up, there may be an underlying cause.

Blue discoloration in your nails can be caused by problems in the lungs, heart, blood cells, or blood vessels. It’s important to identify the underlying cause and to get healthy levels of oxygen into your blood again.

Pitted Nails

Nail pitting — which looks like tiny holes in the nail surface — is a common sign of psoriasis in the nail.

People with nail psoriasis may also experience loose nails that separate from their nail beds. In the most severe cases, nail psoriasis can even cause your nails to crumble.

If you have nail psoriasis, your treatment options may include topicals, oral medications, steroids, and light therapy.

Puffy Nail Fold

If puffy skin develops around the nail bed, this could be due to an infection called paronychia. Paronychia is a common infection that often occurs as a result of a hangnail or picking off the cuticle. Paronychia can usually be treated with antibiotics.

Another cause of puffy nail beds is lupus. Lupus may also cause blue or reddish spots at the base of the nail, and nails may crack or fall off.

Dark Lines Underneath the Nail

If you recently hit your nail with a hammer, then a dark line under your nail is probably just a blood clot.

But if you can’t trace a dark line to an injury, you should see your doctor as soon as possible.

Why? Because it might be melanoma, the most dangerous type of skin cancer.

This type of melanoma usually starts with a stripe on one fingernail only. Typically, the stripe will darken or widen with time, even darkening the cuticle. Sometimes the nail will be painful or bleed.

Melanoma that occurs in the fingernail or toenail has a poorer prognosis than melanoma in other locations, as it often isn’t diagnosed early enough. So if you have any of these signs, see your doctor right away.

Gnawed Nails

Biting your nails may be nothing more than an old habit, but if you compulsively bite your nails and fingers, you may have dermatophagia.

Dermatophagia is not a habit or a tic, but rather a disorder. People with this disorder gnaw at their skin, leaving it bloody, damaged, and, in some cases, infected. The compulsion most frequently affects the hands, such as the cuticles and fingers. However, it may also occur on other parts of the body, too.

Treatment may include cognitive behavioral therapy, medication, and natural treatments that reduce stress.

Nail changes can be a sign of many health conditions. So if you're concerned about the appearance of your nails, start with a visit to your doctor or a dermatologist.

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