What Your Fingernails Say About Your Health
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What Your Fingernails Say About Your Health

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November 27, 2010, last updated February 1, 2013
By LOUISE CARR, Contributing Columnist

5. Brittle Nails

Do your nails drive you crazy splitting and breaking at the slightest opportunity? If you long for smooth nails that grow past the end of your fingertips, you’re not alone. Around 20 percent of people suffer from brittle nails, according to Hochman, Scher and Meyerson’s 1993 report “Brittle Nails.”

Brittle nails are caused by strong soap and detergent or too much time spent doing the dishes. Protect your hands and nails with gloves when washing dishes, avoid long soaks in the tub and try not to repeatedly wet and dry your hands. Use moisturizing lotion and don’t use harsh nail care products like acetone nail polish remover.

Try the B vitamin supplement biotin for brittle nails. A 1990 study from the laboratory at F. Hoffmann-LaRoche AG, Basel, Switzerland showed nails were less likely to split, increased in thickness and had a better microscopic structure when patients took 1.5mg of biotin for six to nine month periods.

Silicone may also help stop your nails breaking and cracking – particularly horsetail, which is high in silicone - although scientific evidence is lacking. The only trial, a 2005 study from Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Brussels, Belgium found no improvement in the condition of 50 women’s nails after 20 weeks’ treatment.

Another no-no for healthy nails is smoking – a 2009 study from the St Bartholomew's and The Royal London School of Medicine, London found smoking strongly increases the likelihood of women developing brittle nails during and after menopause.

6. Oddly Shaped Nails

Unusual but worrying, nail clubbing occurs when the tips of your fingers get bigger and your nails curve round the fingertips.

Nail clubbing is caused by low oxygen levels in the blood and may signal lung disease, inflammatory bowel disease, cardiovascular disease and liver disease. Doctors were unsure why nail clubbing should signal such a wide range of serious diseases until 2008 research from the Leeds Institute of Molecular Medicine shed light on the subject.

Researchers discovered a fatty compound called PGE2, produced by the body to cut down internal inflammation, was implicated. Usually the compound is broken down by the lungs once it has done its work but patients with finger clubbing showed levels of up to 10 times more in their system. The condition is often a signal of lung cancer because the tumor overproduces PGE2, causing clubbing. Spoon nails are characterized by softness and a depression that’s big enough to hold a drop of water. Spoon nails may signal iron deficiency anemia.

7. Puffy Nails

If your nails look strange, with redness and puffiness around the edges, you may be suffering from an inflammation of the nail fold. This inflammation is sometimes caused by lupus or another connective tissue disorder. This condition may also be a sign of nail psoriasis. In a presentation for Skin and Allergy News International 2009, Dennis McGonagle found inflammation that envelops the nail root is also strongly associated with psoriatic arthritis. McGonagle claims that although the nail is developmentally related to the skin, it is also anchored to the skeletal system which affects psoriatic arthritis.

8. Dark Lines under the Nail

Investigate dark lines beneath the nail as soon as possible as they can be a sign of melanoma. Melanoma arising from the nail is a rare occurrence, however, and 1998 research from The Oxford Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, UK states the incidence rate in English patients is 0.1 per 100,000 of the population per year. Dark marks beneath the nail can be caused by injury, so if you’ve recently trapped your finger or hit your nail the darkness is most likely caused by the trauma.

9. Bitten Nails

Nothing gives away that you’re feeling anxious like biting your nails. However, bitten nails may just be the sign of an old habit and not linked to feelings of apprehension, or a form of stress relief. A 2006 research study from the University of Reading, UK found nail biting occurred most often in two conditions, boredom and frustration. (Read more about why you bite your fingernails and natural remedies that help.)

Break the habit by taking good care of your nails and having regular manicures – nail polish will also deter you from putting your nails in your mouth. Try painting a bitter solution on your nails, or distract yourself when you are likely to bite by using a stress ball. If you can’t stop biting your nails and you have other symptoms of anxiety, consult your doctor as you may benefit from treatment for anxiety.

Nail biting may also be a sign of obsessive compulsive disorder. A 2008 study from the Shiraz University of Medical Sciences, Shiraz, Iran found nail biting is found in a significant proportion of child referrals to a mental healthcare clinic setting.

Nail biting occurred frequently in children and teens referred to mental health clinics, the most common disorders were attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (74.6 percent), oppositional defiant disorder (36 percent), separation anxiety disorder (20.6 percent), tic disorder (12.7 percent) and obsessive compulsive disorder (11.1 percent). In the study, around 56.8 percent of mothers and 45.9 percent of fathers were suffering from at least one psychiatric disorder.

10. Separated Nails

Sometimes your nail will pull away from the nail bed and won’t reattach. A separated nail is most commonly caused by injury or repeated strain on the nail. It usually takes around six months for a finger to grow back once it’s fallen off, so be patient and keep your fingertip free of infection while a new one takes its place.

Bonus Tips

11. White Marks Under Your Fingernails

White marks under your fingernails is a condition known as leukonychia. Leukonychia can be caused by injury to the nail bed or by deficiencies in zinc. If the white lines run horizontal, they are called Muehrcke's lines. Unless you recently have slammed your fingers in a door, you better see a doctor if you have these white lines. This is because horizontal white lines under your fingernails can be caused by many serious health conditions such as lead poisoning, heavy metal poisoning or arsenic poisoning. The horizontal white lines can also be caused by cirrhosis (liver disease) or chemotherapy.

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