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Healthy fingernails: Clues about your health

WebMD Medical Reference
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

Take a good look at your fingernails and you may notice subtle variations in the texture or colour - a touch of white here, a rosy tint there, perhaps some rippling or bumps in the surface. These imperfections may not look like much to you, but healthy fingernails are more important than you might think. That's because to the trained eye, nails can provide valuable clues about your overall health.

10 examples of nail changes that could indicate a serious medical condition

  • White nails: Liver diseases such as hepatitis
  • Yellowish, thickened, slow-growing nails: Lung diseases such as emphysema
  • Yellowish nails with a slight blush at the base: Diabetes
  • Half-white, half-pink nails: Kidney disease
  • Red nail beds: Heart disease
  • Pale or white nail beds: Anaemia
  • ‘Clubbing’, a painless increase in tissue around the ends of the fingers, or inversion of the nail: Lung diseases
  • Irregular red lines at the base of the nail fold: Lupus or connective tissue disease
  • Dark lines beneath the nail: Melanoma

Rarely the first clue

When healthy fingernails begin to change colour or texture, one of the most common underlying causes is fingernail fungus, which can cause the nails to crack, peel, and change colour and texture. These infections often prove difficult to treat and may require professional help, including prescription antifungal medications.

Be alert to changes in texture, shape, or colour that aren't due to a bruise or fungal infection, including irregular growth, pitting or holes in the nails, dark brown streaks beneath the nail and cuticle, or long-standing warts on the nail bed. Any such colour change to previously healthy fingernails is cause for concern.

A GP may advise a referral to a dermatologist or other specialist for some conditions.

Tips for strong, healthy fingernails

To maintain healthy fingernails, avoid infections, and improve nail appearance, try the following tips:

  • Keep your nails clean and dry.
  • Avoid nail-biting or picking.
  • Apply moisturiser to your nails and cuticles every day. Creams with urea, phospholipids or lactic acid can help prevent cracking.
  • File your nails in one direction and round the tip slightly, rather than filing to a point.
  • Don't remove the cuticles or clean too deeply under your nails, which can lead to infection.
  • Don't dig out ingrown toenails. See your practice nurse or doctor if they become bothersome.
  • Avoid nail varnish removers that contain acetone or formaldehyde.
  • Take your own instruments if you get frequent manicures.
  • If you have artificial nails, they can trap moisture under them that can be a breeding ground for bacteria and fungi. You should check regularly for green discolouration that may indicate infection.
  • Eat a balanced healthy diet.

If you are not sure if your fingernails are healthy ask your practice nurse or doctor to take a look at them.

Warning signs for conditions from hepatitis to heart disease, may also appear when previously healthy fingernails undergo changes.

Pale, whitish nail beds may indicate a low red blood cell count consistent with anaemia.

An iron deficiency can also cause the nail bed to be thin and concave and have raised ridges, spoon-shaped nails (koilonychia).

Heart disease can turn the nail beds red. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) can show up in the nails through persistent nail-biting or picking.

Even common disorders like thyroid disease can cause abnormalities in the nail beds, producing dry, brittle nails that crack and split easily.

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Reviewed on September 12, 2017

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