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Healthy Fingernails: Clues About Your Health

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From the WebMD Archives

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

Tips for Strong, Healthy Fingernails

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  • Keep your nails clean and dry.
  • Avoid nail-biting or picking.
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  • Don't dig out ingrown toenails. See a dermatologist if they become bothersome.
  • Avoid nail polish removers that contain acetone or formaldehyde.
  • Bring your own instruments if you get frequent manicures.
  • If you have artificial nails, check regularly for green discoloration (a sign of bacterial infection).
  • Eat a balanced diet and take vitamins containing biotin.

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"Just like the eyes are the window to the soul, so are the nails," says Tamara Lior, MD, a dermatologist with Cleveland Clinic Florida. Lior says she once convinced a patient to have their lungs checked after noticing a bluish tint to their nails, a sign that they weren't getting enough oxygen. Sure enough, they had fluid in their lungs.

Warning signs for many other conditions, from hepatitis to heart disease, may also appear when previously healthy fingernails undergo changes, according to Joshua Fox, MD, director of Advanced Dermatology and spokesman for the American Academy of Dermatology. "Changes in the nails can be a sign of a local disease like a fungus infection or a sign of a systemic disease like lupus or anemia," Fox tells WebMD.

Continued

He says he sometimes tries to guess if a person has anemia by looking at their nails. He explains that pale, whitish nail beds may indicate a low red blood cell count consistent with anemia.

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While most of Fox's patients don't come in to report nail problems, he routinely checks patients to make sure they have healthy fingernails. "The nails offer many little clues to what's going on inside you. Lupus patients get quirky, angular blood vessels in their nail folds. Psoriasis starts in the nails up to 10% of the time" and causes splitting and pitting of the nail bed.

Heart disease can turn the nail beds red. Obsessive-compulsive disorder can show up in the nails through persistent nail-biting or picking, Fox says.

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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A Guide toHealthy Fingernails:
10 Possible Signs of Serious Conditions

Nail Appearance

Associated Condition

White nails

Liver diseases such as hepatitis

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Lung diseases such as emphysema

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Diabetes

Half-white, half-pink nails

Kidney disease

Red nail beds

Heart disease

Pale or white nail beds

Anemia

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Psoriasis or inflammatory arthritis

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Lung diseases

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Lupus or connective tissue disease

Dark lines beneath the nail

Melanoma

'Rarely the First Clue'

But can a doctor truly detect undiagnosed heart disease or kidney problems by looking at your nails? American College of Physicians spokesman Christine Laine, MD, MPH, says it's not likely. She doesn't dispute the connection between nails and disease, but she cautions, "Nail changes are rarely the first clue of serious illness. In most instances, patients will manifest other signs or symptoms of disease before nail changes become evident. For example, it would be unusual that nail clubbing was the first thing a patient with emphysema noticed. Breathing difficulty probably would have been present already."

Continued

In addition, Laine, who is senior deputy editor of the Annals of Internal Medicine, notes that certain illnesses may cause nail changes in some patients but not in others. "For example, not all people with liver disease develop white nails," Laine tells WebMD. The reverse is true as well -- not everyone with white nails has liver disease. "In the absence of other signs or symptoms of disease, I would be reluctant to launch a complex, expensive work-up for systemic disease solely because of nail findings."

Fox agrees there is no need to run to the nearest cardiologist if your nail beds turn red. "It could very well be from nail polish," he says. Before assuming the worst, it's important to look at more common explanations, such as bruises, bleeding beneath the nail, and fungal infections. However, it's worthwhile to be vigilant about maintaining healthy fingernails so that you'll be alert to any potential problem.

When to See a Dermatologist

When healthy fingernails begin to change color or texture, one of the most common underlying causes is fingernail fungus, which can cause the nails to crack, peel, and change color and texture. These infections often prove difficult to treat and may require professional help, including prescription antifungal medications. Fox says it's best to see a dermatologist if symptoms persist, especially if the nails start to dislodge from the base or you experience pain and swelling.

Be alert to changes in texture, shape, or color 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 color change to previously healthy fingernails is cause for concern. According to Lior, such changes can indicate skin cancer. "Warts around the nails have a tendency to develop into squamous cell cancer," she tells WebMD. "If patients see a dark discoloration involving the cuticle, then we worry about melanoma," the deadliest form of skin cancer.

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WebMD Feature Reviewed by Matthew Hoffman, MD on February 24, 2008

Sources

SOURCES: Tamara Lior, MD, dermatologist, Cleveland Clinic Florida. Joshua Fox, MD, director, Advanced Dermatology; spokesman, American Academy of Dermatology. News release, Advanced Dermatology. American Academy of Dermatology. Christine Laine, MD, MPH, senior deputy editor, Annals of Internal Medicine; spokesman, American College of Physicians.

© 2007 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.

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