Unexpected spots, breaks, or thickening of your finger or toenails can be frustrating or embarrassing for purely cosmetic reasons.
However, changes in your nails often also reveal early signs of health problems, from minor infections to cancer or lung disease.
So what do these changes mean?
Common Nail Conditions
|Dark streaks can be a sign of skin cancer.||White sections in the nail may be the first stage of the nail lifting up (onycholysis) due to a fungal infection, psoriasis, or injury.|
|Redness around the nail or a greenish-black nail (paronychia) may be a sign of a bacterial or fungal infection.||Yellow nail syndrome can result from smoking, rheumatoid arthritis, nail infection, or simply wearing red nail polish without a base coat.|
|Pitting is often a sign of systemic conditions, such as psoriasis or atopic dermatitis.||Beau lines are deep grooves that occur when the nail stops growing temporarily, often from injury, illness, or chemotherapy. They are usually nothing to worry about.|
|Ram’s horn nail is the common name for thickened or overgrown nails. They may be a sign of psoriasis, circulation problems, or simply age.||Washboard nails have a series of grooves or ridges in the center of the nail, usually as a result of picking at or pushing back against your cuticles. They are not connected to any health problems and will usually disappear once you break the habit.|
|Spoon-shaped nails, named for the indentation that forms in the nail, are caused by an iron deficiency.||Clubbing is the result of nails that grow downward instead of straight out, causing a fluid build-up in the fingers. This may be a sign of disease in the lungs, heart, liver, stomach, or intestine.|
"Chronic nail biting can leave you vulnerable to infection as you pass harmful bacteria and viruses from your mouth to your fingers and from your nails to your face and mouth." American Academy of Dermatology
How to Keep Your Nails Healthy
Maintain a Good Hygiene Routine
Good personal hygiene is a key foundation for nail health. In addition to keeping your hands and feet clean, it’s also important not to clean underneath the nails too often or too aggressively, as this can damage underlying tissue. You should also wear footwear in communal bathing areas and avoid sharing towels to prevent potential fungal infections.
Keep Hands Dry
Because moisture can increase the risk of fungal and bacterial infections, keeping your hands dry is also important. If you wash dishes or laundry frequently, you should wear protective gloves.
Consult a Specialist
However, while these measures can reduce the risk of many nail conditions, they cannot prevent underlying health problems like heart disease or cancer. To address these risks, you should speak to a specialist.
Talk to Your Doctor About These Changes
Most general practitioners are trained in recognizing changes in your nails as potential signs of systemic disease. However, if the cause is not immediately apparent, the doctor may send you to a dermatologist to take nail clippings and scrapings beneath the nail for lab analysis.
Finding the Right Treatment
If the changes in your nails are the result of an infection, an antibiotic or antifungal preparation is the first line of defense. An over-the-counter treatment is often enough to eliminate mild infections.
If your nails do not respond to over-the-counter options, your doctor can recommend prescription-strength options.
Treating the Underlying Problem
If your nails have changed due to a systemic problem, a specialist must treat the underlying condition in order to relieve related symptoms.
Managing Bad Habits
Eliminating bad habits can protect your nails from breaking or cracking. Refrain from chewing your nails, biting or tearing off hangnails, or using your nails to scrape off stickers.
If You're Worried, Speak to a Professional
In most cases, your doctor is more likely to make the connection between nail health and overall health than you are. Consequently, scheduling regular appointments maximizes the chance of catching any problems sooner rather than later. Contact your doctor today to set up a visit.