Most of us don’t pay too much attention to our fingernails, except when we’re looking for just the right shade of polish to match our new date-night dress, or when a nail snags painfully close to the quick. But this is one case where ignorance definitely isn’t bliss; our nails actually say a lot about our health, and not paying attention to them can allow a minor medical condition to grow into a major one. What are your nails trying to tell you?
It seems that our fingertips are like the canary in our internal coal mine: When their appearance changes in any significant way, it’s often a signal that something is going wrong elsewhere in our body. As dermatologist Christine Poblete-Lopez, M.D., told the Cleveland Clinic, “Your nails are a very good reflection of your health. Many things can occur in the nails that can signify systemic or skin problems.”
Some fingernail symptoms are (presumably) too drastic and severe to ignore. For example, so-called “spoon nails,” or koilonychia, describe nails that become soft and severely indented. This can signal a number of conditions, from heart disease to a liver disorder that causes an over-absorption of iron, according to the Mayo Clinic. Other nail changes are much subtler, so you might not even notice them until signs of illness appear elsewhere on or in your body. (Especially if your nails are usually covered up in polish.)
Below are just a few of the nail symptoms that can signal health conditions. Of course, it’s important to talk to your doctor if you notice any unusual or sudden change in the appearance of your fingernails or toenails, or if the nail change is accompanied by other symptoms. Because your nails are for more than just manicures, after all.
1You Didn’t Look Where You Were Going
Have you ever noticed little white spots appearing unexpectedly on your fingernails? Don’t panic. Cleveland Clinic dermatologist John Anthony, MD, told Health that these spots most often signal trauma to the nail. So it’s likely you banged your nails against something without even realizing it.
2You Need A Thyroid Check
Dry, peeling, and splitting nails are one of the most common complaints about nail health, NY-based dermatologist Debra Jaliman, M.D., told Health. There are lots of possible causes, including exposure to water and cleaning products, but an underactive thyroid can also lead to brittle nails.
3You May Have Psoriasis
The skin condition is more typically characterized by scaliness and patches on the arms, legs, and other parts of the body, but the nails can be affected as well. As the Mayo Clinic explained, little depressions, or pits, in the nails can be a sign of psoriasis, as well as certain connective-tissue disorders.
4It’s Time To Add Some Zinc To Your Diet
Distinct horizontal indentations on your nails are known as Beau’s lines, according to the Mayo Clinic. The lines can be caused by anything from an injury to diabetes to kidney disease to illnesses with high fevers. A low level of zinc in your body can also result in Beau’s lines, so if you don’t have any other explanation for the dents, you might want to ask your doctor whether diet might be involved.
5You’re Getting Too Many Gel Manicures
If you’re a salon regular whose nails are starting to thin, peel, and split, your beauty routine may be to blame. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) reported that nail salon clients who get frequent gel manicures are more prone to thinning and brittleness of the nail plate. It’s not known definitely why this method is riskier than other nail treatments, but it may be due to either the gel itself or to the prolonged exposure to the acetone used to soak off the gel. The AAD offers several recommendations for gel manicure clients to help keep nails healthy; among them: Consider cutting back on your gel treatments to allow your nails to heal.
6Your Iron Level Is Low
Brittle, thinning nails, along with other telltale symptoms such as fatigue, pale skin, and flagging energy, all point to a lack of iron in the blood, explained Women’s Health. (Iron deficiency can also lead to flattened or spoon-shaped nails.)
7There’s A Fungus At Work
Thickened yellow nails are a classic sign of a fungal infection, according to Healthline. Nail fungus is more common in toenails, but the fingers can be affected if exposed to warmth and moisture for extended periods. Other symptoms of fungal nail infection include a foul odor and separation of the nail from the nail bed. If your nails are simply yellowed, however, this could be a byproduct of smoking or nail polish, reported Good Housekeeping.
8You Need An Antibiotic
Think twice before nibbling off that hangnail, warned the National Institutes of Health’s Medline website. The delicate area around your cuticle is susceptible to paronychia, a finger infection that occurs around the nails. Bacteria can enter the area, causing swelling, redness or pockets of pus; untreated, the infection can spread to the rest of the body. Cutting the cuticle or pushing it back roughly can also invite infection, so if you love manicures, make sure your nail salon sterilizes its tools thoroughly.
9Time Is Marching On
Vertical ridges on all of your nails may not be the prettiest thing to see, but they’re not a cause for alarm, either. Dr. Jaliman told Health that vertical nail lines are typically a sign of age.
10Time To See The Doctor ASAP
Black or purple patches under the nail are usually just a bruise. But a distinct black or brown vertical line under the thumbnail, especially coupled with skin discoloration or signs of infection, is a red flag that you need to get checked out right away. These symptoms could be a sign of melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, according to the AAD. The organization added that any sudden or progressive change in the look of your nails should always be brought to your doctor’s attention.