From itch scratchers to penny picker-uppers, our fingernails play an essential role in our everyday life, but most of us pay little attention to them. They may be worth a closer look, though, since they can be a strong indicator of our overall health.
The growth of your nails begins under your skin, and as new cells grow, they push the old ones up through your skin. So, what you see when you look at your fingernails are the mature cells (yup, the dead cells), which is why you can cut your nails without pain. The part of the nail that is attached (nail bed) has a thin layer of dermis, which has sensory nerve endings, and that's the reason you feel pain and pressure on the lower part of your nails. Your nail beds have a pinkish color because of the tiny blood vessels under them that keep blood flowing through the cells. Healthy fingernails will grow about 3.5mm per month and toenails about 1.5 mm. Your fingernails are pretty resilient but can be susceptible to a variety of problems and conditions.
Yellowish, thick nails: Nails can turn yellow for any number of reasons ranging from mild causes such as stains, to more serious concerns such as diabetes. When the discoloration is accompanied by thickening or crumbling of the nail, and if it only affects one or a few of your nails, then the issue at hand is more likely to be a fungal infection.
These infections are generally more common on toenails, but can also affect fingernails. Because there are so many different types of infections, it’s best to see a professional healthcare provider to get a treatment that works best for each case.
Brittle nails: Brittle nails affect one in every five people. If your nails break, flake or crack, most often it’s caused by aging or from regular exposure to water or chemicals such as those in some nail polish removers. Some research has found that regularly applying moisturizers to the nails, wearing gloves when working with water, or taking biotin (vitamin B7) supplements can help make nails strong again.
On the other hand, if the brittleness is accompanied by weight gain, low mood, red or flaky skin, or an extreme sensitivity to cold, talking to a professional healthcare provider may be a good idea – brittle nails are often a symptom of hypo- or hyperthyroidism, psoriasis, and other diseases.
White nails: Most of us have ended up with a few white spots on our nails at one point or another. Normally, there’s no need to worry, as it’s a common sign of mild injury to the nail. With a little bit of patience, the marks will go away on their own.
Occasionally, white on the nails can have other causes, so it’s best to speak to a professional healthcare provider, especially if you can’t remember doing anything that might have damaged the nails.
A fungal infection may result in plenty of spots, possibly on more than one nail. Half-white and half-pink nails may indicate kidney failure. Fully white nails may suggest cirrhosis of the liver, a serious disease that prevents the liver from working properly.
Dark spots: Dark spots are normally the result of a more serious trauma to the nail, such as shutting a drawer too quickly or finding the wrong nail with a hammer. As the poor nail in question grows out, the dark mark will grow out with it.
If you notice a darkened spot that didn’t result from a misunderstanding with a hammer, though, and/or if a darkened nail doesn’t grow out on its own, it might be a good idea to seek professional advice. In these instances, the discoloration may be caused by a mole or, even worse, skin cancer.
Ridges: If you notice ripples developing, it could be an early warning for psoriasis, eczema or inflammatory arthritis. Iron deficiency anemia can also trigger vertical ridges and changes to your nails that make them concave, or “spoon-shaped.” Deficiencies in calcium, zinc or vitamin A can also be the culprit of ridges in fingernails. Horizontal, parallel white lines extending across a nail can be a sign of liver disease or malnutrition. Deep grooves that go from left to right across the nail are known as Beau's lines and could be associated with severe physical stress.
Clubbing: Clubbing is when your fingertips become enlarged, and the nail grows curved downward. It can be a sign of low oxygen in your blood and is associated with lung disease. Clubbing can also be related to liver or kidney disease, heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease and AIDS.
Photo from here, with thanks.