Did you know your nails can reveal clues to your overall health? Your nails reveal more than you might think. When you have a nail disorder, people notice.
Not sure what’s normal and what’s not? Here are some clues to help you determine what healthy nails look like, and when there could be a problem
Signs of Normal Nails
- Uniform in color
- Smooth with no grooves or pits
- Attached to the skin
- White lunula (“little moon”) just above the cuticle
Signs of Abnormal Nails
- Separation of nail from skin
- Thinning or thickening
- Oddly shaped
Why are your nails changing color?
Yellow nails are, believe it or not, relatively common, and usually caused by one of two factors: an infection or a reaction from a product you’ve been using, such as nail polish.
Smokers may yellow their nails with tobacco. If they resist treatment, your yellow nails may indicate psoriasis, thyroid problems, or diabetes.
Nails can take on a blue appearance for lots of reasons. Technically your nail isn’t blue—just the nail bed beneath. Your nail bed is free of skin pigment, leaving it vulnerable to blue coloring in several ways.
One cause of blue nails is silver poisoning (argyria). Because your nail beds have no skin pigment, they can be one of the first places to show signs of silver deposits. People, who work with silver, including silver miners and silverware manufacturers, are at risk of argyria.
Nail pitting is a classical sign of psoriasis in the nail. This appears as tiny holes in the nail surface. Rippling of the nail surface is seen in patients with dermatitis of the fingertips. This can be a result of atopic dermatitis, irritant dermatitis, or allergic contact dermatitis.
Split or Cracked Nails
Nail brittleness is a common condition of the elderly. Typically, the cause remains undiscovered, partly because there are so many potential causes. Nail brittleness can result from drugs, a trauma to the nail, or a number of diseases or nutrient deficiencies. When brittle nails split, the name your dermatologist uses may depend on how they split. When nails begin to split horizontally, the condition is called onychoschizia. But when they split along the direction the nail grows, this is called onychorrhexis.
Puffy Nail Fold Infection (Paronychia)
The skin around the edge of your nail, known as the nail fold, can be damaged by many things. When it gets puffy and swollen, doctors call it paronychia, which can be either chronic or acute. Acute paronychia usually develops from an infection. But if your nail bed is chronically puffy, you probably have a chemical irritation.
There are other reasons for puffy nail beds, too. People whose hands are frequently soaking in water—dishwashers, food handlers, and swimmers, to name a few—may get it. People with diabetes are more vulnerable to it too, as are those who take certain HIV medications.
Dark Lines Beneath the Nail
There are a number of reasons for the appearance of a linear brown or black streak extending from the cuticle to the tip of the nail. Since it is not possible to visualize the source of the color since it resides in the nail matrix below the nail fold, it is frequently a cause for anxiety in the patients and their doctors. A biopsy may be necessary to rule out skin cancer.
Are you a nail biter? The technical term is “onychophagia,” and this common stress-relieving habit is found in both children and adults. It can have both obvious and subtle health consequences. Most obviously, chewing your nails leaves them looking raw and rough. But other health problems may include:
- Intestinal parasites picked up from your nails
- Jaw pain and dysfunction
- Fungal nail infections
- Stomach infections from swallowing nail pieces
White Spots on Nails
White spots on nails are common and usually harmless. They usually appear on the nails of your fingers. Toenails are less commonly affected, but they can appear there as well. The majority of these cases involve a slight trauma to the nail plate itself (what we commonly refer to simple as “the nail.”) If you’ve rapped your nails against a hard object, or if they’ve bent but not broken, a white line or spot may develop. In these cases, the treatment is simple: wait for the spot to grow out of your nail, then clip it off.
Sometimes white spots develop at birth in the same place as someone else in the family, indicating the condition can also be hereditary. In rare instances, your entire nail may be all-white, a condition known as total leukonychia. Serious cases like this might indicate an underlying health problem, but they also may not. Your doctor’s diagnosis can help settle the matter.
Green Nail Syndrome
This can be a frightening discovery—the green on your nails may be a splotch beneath the nail or you may find vivid, dark, completely green nails. These can appear as either finger or toenails, or both.
One common cause is a bacterial infection. The Pseudomonas bacteria may be picked up from working in or otherwise spending time in water. That could mean gardening in wet weather, working as a dishwasher or swimming in poorly chlorinated pools and hot tubs. People whose jobs cause their fingernails to separate may be especially at risk, too. Such occupations include janitors, plumbers, and gardeners.