When you look at your nails, you might not think much beyond, “They’re dirty,” or, “I need to get a manicure.” And maybe next time you should, as they could be telling you a little bit more than meets the eye. Attributes such as the texture, color and condition of your nails are all indicators of your overall health.
“There is a relationship between some nail conditions and nail findings with internal problems or disease states,” said Dr. Adam Hessel of Buckeye Dermatology.
Some common findings can be yellow nails, partial whiteness, nail separation, dry and brittle nails and transverse grooves on the nail.
Yellow nails can sometimes be confused with nail fungus, however, the two point to completely different things. Yellow nails are commonly the result of cigarette smoke and can be connected with psoriasis. A more extreme case of yellow nails is referred to as yellow nail syndrome, which is associated with pulmonary problems.
Fungus on the nail is more commonly a result of one of two things, Hessel said. Either repetitive trauma has caused abnormal nail growth, thus making a person more susceptible to fungus entering the nail, or a person’s immune system can’t recognize fungus well in order to fight it off.
Leah Parker, owner of Refuge at the Mill Salon, warned against irritating the fresh tissue of the nail bed and the sticky layer that sits on top, called the bed epithelium.
“If somebody keeps on picking or not appropriately taking care of it, it could not re-adhere and then you’ll always have a nail plate that’s lifted up off of a nail bed,” she said.
Bacteria can also enter the skin in open areas, which can result in infections. Parker said a common misconception is that people should completely cut their cuticles.
“Cuticles are never meant to be cut because it’s considered living tissue, so you never want to cut living tissue.”
A partially white nail can be associated with liver and kidney diseases, however, white spots on the nail can also stem from vitamin deficiencies or a previous injury to the base of the nail—the matrix—that’s just now growing out.
Separation of the nail from the nail plate or nail bed could be the result of a prescription drug reaction or possibly a thyroid issue, according to Parker.
Dry, brittle nails could either be a sign that your diet is lacking some proper nutrition, or it could be an effect of aging. Parker recommended vitamin E or anything that will hydrate your hair, skin and nails to help combat this condition.
Perpendicular grooves, called Beau’s lines, on the nail are “an indicator in retrospect,” as Hessel referred to them. A prior infection that caused rapid weight loss or high fever can sometimes be seen on the nail months later, as it takes a while for the nail to grow from its origin. This mark indicates a disruption in the normal growth of the nail.
What you see on your nail can sometimes be a sign of an internal condition, but Dr. Hessel said an internal condition isn’t always associated with a nail abnormality.
People who get manicures and pedicures and have professionals take care of their nails will help keep them healthy from the outside, Parker said. The more serious issues arise when people dig underneath their nails at home with cross-contaminated implements.
While nails can provide clues about underlying health issues, they aren’t always a tell-all. Consult with you doctor if you notice any signs of extreme nail abnormalities.
SHE’S A BITER!
“A lot of people don’t realize that our nails hold things, even acrylic nails. Women, we like to get the acrylic nail, and acrylics hold the most bacteria, so clean nails are the best way to fight disease and keep down bacteria,” said Marie Biggs, a nail instructor at the Aveda Institute Columbus.
When you bite your nails, you are allowing the bacteria that sit under your nails to enter your body via your mouth.
Stress and anxiety can lead to nervous habits like nail-biting, but even biting the occasional hangnail can cause problems. Biggs suggested keeping nails painted or using “no bite” clear polishes, which are a bitter-flavored deterrent.
You could also treat yourself to more regular manicures, which helps because you’re investing money, Parker said, similar to the idea of people buying gym memberships so they feel more inclined to go.