A perfectly manicured hand is one where the nails are strong and smooth, with no discoloration, jagged cuticles or other signs of abuse. But what about nails that are less than perfect? Since many health problems have an impact on the nails, it’s worth listening to what your hands have to say.
When the normally smooth surface of the fingernail has several small dents or pits in it, that can be a signal that something is going on beneath the nail. Most often, the cause of those dents is psoriasis. The inflammatory skin condition—it shows up as red, scaly patches on the skin—can also affect the skin cells in the nails. Instead of growing out smoothly, the surface of the nail takes on a dented appearance. Once the psoriasis is treated and under control, nails will slowly return to normal. (Since nails only grow about a millimeter per week, it will take a few months for the old, pitted nail to fully grow out and be replaced with a healthy one.)
A healthy nail has a specific shape—slightly raised in the middle, then curving down a bit at the tip. So when you see a nail with the exact opposite configuration, that should be a clue that all is not right. “It’s called a spoon-shaped nail, and it’s a symptom of iron deficiency anemia,” says Dr. D’Anne Kleinsmith, a spokesperson for the American Dermatological Society. As with many health problems, it can take months of iron deficiency before the problem shows up in the nails. And when the anemia is corrected, it will take awhile for normal-shaped nails to re-grow.
The nail plate is made up of several layers of keratin (a protein). Ideally, those layers are sealed together to form a unified, strong nail. But when nails aren’t protected—your hands are in water a lot, or exposed to cold, dry air—those layers tend to delaminate. The result is nails that are likely to peel. Besides being an indication that you need to take better care of your nails—polish can help seal the layers and moisturizing them several times a day will keep the layers supple—peeling nails can mean a diet that’s lacking in linoleic acid. The easiest way to up your intake is to increase your use of vegetable oils (add some to your salad dressing or drizzle some on steamed veggies).
By some estimates, about 20 percent of women suffer from a condition called “brittle nail syndrome.” While it may sound like just a fancy name for nails that break easily, the causes go deeper than that. Brittle nails are ones that can’t hold on to moisture, so the layers of the nail plate dry out and crack. Medically speaking, it’s possible for an under-active thyroid to cause both dry skin and brittle nails. Nutritionally, a diet low in iron can cause nails to become thin, brittle and easily broken (eating more green, leafy vegetables, red meat and eggs will help boost your iron intake). Biotin supplements (a B-complex vitamin) have also been shown to improve the condition of brittle nails. And your habits play a role as well. The main culprit: excessive exposure to water. Constantly wetting and drying your hands (and nails) can make brittleness worse.
A healthy nail (with healthy skin beneath its bed) has a pretty, pinkish hue. When it doesn’t, that may be a reason to worry. “When all of the nails turn yellow it can be a sign of lung disease or diabetes,” says Dr. Arielle Kauvar, a New York City dermatologist. “Yellow spots on the nails can be an indicator of fungus or psoriasis.” Since any of these conditions warrants treatment by a doctor, it’s worth seeing a dermatologist if yellow nails persist. Women who frequently wear very dark nail polish for long periods of time (especially without using a protective basecoat underneath it) may also notice a slight yellowing of their nails, but it’s no reason to panic. The nails are merely stained from the polish and will return to their normal shade if they are left unpolished for a while.
Tiny white splotches dotting otherwise healthy-looking pink nails are not normally a sign of anything serious. Most often, those spots are the manifestation of some type of trauma to the nail. If you injure the nail matrix—the area at the base of the nail where new nail cells are created—you’ll see the results of that trauma show up as white spots as the nails grow out. But since it takes several weeks for those new nail cells to grow out to a place on the nail plate where the injury is visible, chances are that by time you notice a white spot, you may have forgotten the nail-slamming incident that caused it. But if you’re certain you didn’t injure your nails and you are noticing recurring white spots, there are several other causes—including the skin conditions psoriasis and eczema, or a diet that’s deficient in the mineral zinc (found in whole grains, poultry and seafood).
The most common cause of fingernails that suddenly take on an unhealthy tinge is some type of fungal infection. Both yeast infections and bacterial infections can easily be picked up at an unsanitary nail salon—usually caused by the use of unsterilized tools. “A yeast infection can cause the nail to separate from the underlying skin,” says Kleinsmith. “The nail can start lifting up and a crumbly, white fungus can appear underneath it.” A bacterial infection can cause the affected nail to turn slightly green. And getting too vigorous with the cuticle pusher or nippers can lead to either a yeast or bacterial infection in the cuticle surrounding the nail. “If you notice sudden swelling or pain in the cuticles a day or two after a manicure, see a doctor to get on antibiotics,” she recommends.
The half moon
Officially called the lunula, that little crescent at the base of the nail is where the nail matrix (the birthplace of new nail cells) lies. Normally the lunula is most prominent on the thumbs, and it gets progressively less visible on each finger as you move from thumb over to pinky. “It’s a normal variation to see more of it on some fingers than on others,” says Kleinsmith. “And whether it’s visible or not isn’t indicative of health.” A fun nail fact: the shape of the lunula determines the natur
al shape of the nail edge.
Potato chips aren’t the only things that can have ridges. Nails that have even, vertical ridges are totally normal—a sign not of any health problems, but of age (they tend to become more accentuated as you get older). But a condition called Beau’s lines is a sign of a more systemic health issue. “If a person has been very sick or gone through a lot of stress, the nail may stop growing,” Kleinsmith explains. “When it starts growing again, an indentation occurs at that spot on the nail.” As the nail grows out over the next several months, these indentations (probably in about the same place on each nail) will become visible. A single deep ridge in just one nail may indicate that there’s a small wart or cyst at the base of the nail that is putting pressure on the nail matrix and affecting the way the new nails grow.
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