10 Things Your Nails Say about Your Health

Your body has a way of letting you know about the state of your health through various signs and symptoms, and your nails are no exception. While you may enjoy getting your nails trimmed, shaped, buffed and painted, do allow some “down time” for them to go bare and look out for odd spots, stripes and colours, as these could be tell-tale signs of potential health problems.

Check out the following 10 types of nail conditions and what each of them is trying to tell you about your health:

1. Blue Nails

What it looks like: Your nails will look dark with a bluish tint. In some cases, the nail bed will turn purple.

What it means: According to Dr Andrew Weil, an American physician, author and expert in holistic health and integrative medicine, blue fingernails (also known as cyanosis) can signal various disorders such as respiratory disease or Raynaud’s Disease (a rare disorder of the blood vessels). Extremely cold temperatures can slow down the blood flow through the skin, which causes your fingernails to turn blue. However, this will usually go away once you warm up.

Bluish nails can also be due to low haemoglobin, which carries oxygen in red blood cells. The decline of oxygen levels in your body causes blood to turn blue-red. Prolonged cyanosis can be a sign of lung and breathing problems, including asthma, emphysema (damage to the air sacs in the lung, causing breathlessness), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, bronchitis and other respiratory disorders. It can also be a sign of heart problems and overdose of certain drugs such as narcotics, benzodiazepines and some sedatives.

Next steps: If the bluish tint on your nails persists, Dr Weil recommends going for a medical check-up to pin down the underlying cause. Your doctor will conduct some tests to check your heart, lungs and haemoglobin.


2. Dark Vertical Bands

What it looks like: Dark lines running from the top to bottom of your nail. The dark shade may be darker at the base of your nail.

What it means: Dark lines on your nail could be a sign of melanoma, the deadliest form of cancer. According to a 2004 American Family Physician report, “people with darker skin are more vulnerable than Caucasians to subungual melanoma (melanoma of the nail bed), but darker-skinned races also have more dark lines in nails that are benign.”

While subungual melanoma generally affects one nail, the pigmentation may spread and change in appearance (i.e. become wider or darker over time), affecting the surrounding skin (also known as the nail fold).

Next steps: Take note of the colour and intensity of the dark lines on your nails. If they continue to change or darken, schedule an appointment with a dermatologist.



3. Gnawed Nails

What it looks like: A consequence of frequent nail biting, gnawed nails can be characterised through its rough and jagged appearance.

What it means: Nail biting is a habit that often starts from childhood and is often triggered by stress and boredom. Studies have shown that 60% of children and 45% of teenagers bite their nails. While nail biting may become less common after 18, for some people, this habit continues into adulthood.

Regular nail biting causes severe damage to the nail and surrounding skin, and may be one of the first signs of a psychological condition, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). In addition, children who bite their nails may also be going through other psychiatric disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), separation anxiety disorder or bed-wetting.

Next Steps: Talk to your doctor or a mental health professional if the nail biting habit persists and is coupled with feelings of anxiety and stress. It could be a sign of a series of psychological problems which can be treated with counselling and/or medication.


4. Horizontal Depressions

What it looks like: Look out for white ridges running across the width of the nail bed. Also called “Beau’s lines” (after the French physician who first described them), these horizontal depressions can occur in all or just one nail, and are actual ridges in the nail plate itself.

What it means: If you’ve recently injured your nail (e.g. getting your finger stuck between the car door), these horizontal depressions could just be the after-effect of the incident. But if you have managed to keep your digits injury-free, these Beau’s lines could be a sign of an illness, such as diabetes, circulatory diseases and psoriasis.

On the other hand, Beau’s lines could also develop due to the beta-blockers and drugs used in chemotherapy or surface in the later years as a result of aging.

Next steps:There is no need to worry if these depressions develop as a result of an injury. Your nails grow about 1mm every six to ten days, so the affected area will grow out in no time.

However, if you develop Beau’s lines despite not experiencing any nail trauma, do consult your doctor as soon as possible to find out the root cause.


5. Red or Brown Streaks under Nails

What it looks like: If you notice red or brownish red streaks underneath your nail, these are known as “splinter haemorrhages” and are lines of blood caused by tiny damaged blood vessels. They usually blend in towards the same direction as your nail growth.

What it means: A few stray splinters under one nail is harmless and is most likely caused by a recent injury. However, if you see these splinters on a number of nails, they may be a sign of lupus (a chronic inflammatory disease that occurs when your body’s immune system attacks your own tissues and organs), psoriasis or endocarditis (infection of the heart valves), among others.

Next steps: No treatment is needed for splinter haemorrhages caused by an injury to the nail. However, for heart-related conditions, your doctor will be able to evaluate and prescribe suitable treatment.


What does it mean when your nails get weak and brittle, or when they turn yellow and curve up like a spoon? Find out more on the next page.


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