Maybe you spend so much time pruning, sculpting, shining, and varnishing your nails (or having a professional do all of that for you) that you don’t spend much time observing them in their natural state. And that means you could be overlooking light or dark marks, lines, and unusual colors that could indicate that something’s amiss with your body.
While nothing can replace a visit to your doctor for a proper diagnosis, examining your fingernails for the following abnormalities can help you identify early warning signs of potential health issues, so remove that polish and take a look.
Pallid Nail Beds
The issue isn’t straightforward when it comes to white or pallid nail beds. If your fingernail beds appear ghostly, you may have anemia, a blood disorder characterized by a low red blood cell count. “Anemia resulting from insufficient iron levels can lead to inadequate oxygen in the blood, which causes the skin and tissues to become pale, particularly the tissues beneath the nails,” says Dr. Shilpi Agarwal, a board-certified family medicine physician based in Los Angeles. Make sure you’re consuming good sources of iron, including verdant leafy vegetables, legumes, and red meat, to enhance your levels.
More seriously, pale nails could also be an indication of early diabetes or liver disease, both of which can result in impaired blood flow. “When diagnosed early, diabetes can often be managed with dietary modifications,” says Dr. Agarwal. For example, you may want to try avoiding processed foods with refined sugars and carbohydrates, and increase your intake of fiber, vegetables, and whole grains. “These will help stabilize blood sugar levels and limit circulatory damage caused by uncontrolled sugar levels,” explains Dr. Agarwal. For liver disease, it is essential to visit the doctor for testing to obtain an accurate diagnosis.
Yellowing or Thickening
Yellow nails certainly look concerning, and the cause of the hue is even more concerning: “Thickened nails, with or without a yellowish tone, are characteristic of fungal infections that generally extend across the entire nail bed,” notes Dr.
Agarwal. Furthermore, the customary ointment tends to be ineffective as the infection resides in the bed of the nail and the underlying nail sheet, she notes. Your physician has the capability to prescribe an oral medication, which will effectively cover the entirety of the affected nail.
Even if you diligently inspect your skin for questionable moles monthly, you likely overlook your nails, a place where dangerous melanoma often goes unnoticed. “Dark brown or black vertical streaks on the nail bed should never be ignored,” warns Dr. Agarwal. “These can be a significant indication of melanoma, which requires early detection and treatment,” she says.
Leave your nails bare periodically so you can examine them, then go get a manicure or do your nails yourself. “Sunlight is unable to penetrate through polish, so any shade other than a clear coat will provide an adequate barrier from the sun,” explains Dr. Agarwal. Smart idea since your nails’ smooth surface makes it difficult for sunscreen to be absorbed into the nail.
Indentations and Furrows
Indentations and small cracks in your nails are known as “pitting” of the nail bed and are often associated with psoriasis, an inflammatory disease that leads to scaly or red patches all over the body. “Individuals who suffer from psoriasis develop clusters of cells along the nail bed that accumulate and disrupt the linear, smooth growth of a normal nail,” explains Dr. Agarwal. “As these cells are sloughed off, furrows or indentations are left behind on the surface,” she continues. A physical examination is often all you need for a diagnosis, after which your doctor may recommend topical, oral, or injected medications or light therapy.
Fragile, Thin, or Raised Nails
Breaking a nail can be disappointing, but if your tips seem to crack at the slightest touch, it could indicate an issue with your thyroid. This gland in your neck regulates metabolism, energy, and growth, and insufficient thyroid hormone often leads to hair loss, fragile and thin nails, and slow nail growth, notes Dr. Agarwal.
A thyroid disorder also manifests itself by causing your nail plate to separate from the nail bed in an apparent way. “Raised nails are thought to occur because the increase in thyroid hormone can accelerate cell turnover and separate the nail from its natural linear growth pattern,” explains Dr. Agarwal.
Fragile, thin, slow-growing, or raised, see your physician as soon as possible for a simple blood test that can check for a thyroid disorder, which can be treated with medications.
Stripes on your nails are only a good thing if they are painted on. Horizontal pale lines that span the entire nail, are paired, and appear on more than one nail are called Muehrcke’s lines.
These could be a sign of renal disease, hepatic irregularities, or a deficiency in protein and other nutrients, states Dr. Agarwal. “They are believed to be caused by a disruption in blood supply to the nail bed due to an underlying condition,” she clarifies.
Shorter horizontal pale marks or streaks, on the other hand, are likely just the result of injury to the base of your nail. These may persist for weeks to months and typically will vanish on their own.
A complexion with a bluish tinge is a clear indication that someone is experiencing a lack of airflow, and indigo nails denote the same thing: insufficient oxygen reaching your fingertips. This could be triggered by respiratory disease or a vascular condition known as Raynaud’s Disease, which is an uncommon disorder affecting the blood vessels, according to Dr. Agarwal. Some individuals naturally have slower blood circulation, particularly in cold temperatures, she mentions — but consult a physician to have your blood and oxygenation levels checked if your nails remain persistently blue.
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