If you can’t quite put a finger on what’s ailing you, perhaps you should take a closer look at your fingernails. Your nails are actually a strong indicator of various health problems—some mild and some more serious, according to the Mayo Clinic.
While dirty fingernails probably just means you need to maintain them a bit better, there are other telltale signs the keratin formations near your fingertips are trying to communicate to you, and which would warrant a trip to the doctor. Here are 14 health-related problems that appear in our fingernails…
1. Small Pits on the Surface
The Mayo Clinic notes that “ice pick-like depressions” on your nails don’t necessarily come from you chewing on them. It is a condition also found in people that have psoriasis, a condition that causes dry, scaly skin.
The clinic also warns that pitted nails could mean you have a connective tissue disorder, and they provide gave two examples. The first are tissue disorders, such as Reiter’s syndrome, which can have arthritis-like symptoms among other indicators. The second is alopecia areata, an autoimmune disease that causes hair loss.
2. Clubbed Nails
This condition is characterized by enlarged fingertips with nails that curve right around the edge. The U.S. Library of Medicine says there are some disorders of varying seriousness that clubbed nails may be characteristic of.
Some of the less-serious problems associated with nail clubbing are Celiac disease (a gluten allergy), an overactive thyroid, or dysentery (severe diarrhea with pain). However, the most common ailment associated with clubbed nails is lung cancer. It can also be caused by heart defects and lung disorders, such as Cystic Fibrosis.
3. Recessed Nails
Are you nails depressed in the center (enough to hold a drop of water in them)? The Mayo Clinic refers to them as “spoon nail” because of the resemblance, and says they can indicate an iron deficiency or too much iron in the blood (hemochromatosis).
While both of those conditions can be treated fairly easily, spoon nails can also point to more serious illnesses such as heart disease. Hypothyroidism (otherwise known as an underactive thyroid) is another possible cause, and can leave you with fatigue and other symptoms.
4. Yellowing Nails
Anyone who uses nail polish has probably seen their nails turn a tint of yellow at some point or another. This is normal and typically means that the nail polish was left on a little longer than it should. But if the yellowing isn’t due to nail polish, it’s probably from a condition called yellow nail syndrome. “With yellow nail syndrome, nails appear thick and have a yellow/green hue,” says Dana Stern, M.D., assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical School and founder and CEO of Dr. DANA, the first dermatologist-developed nail care line when talking to SELF. “They frequently lack a cuticle as well as a lunula (the half moon at the base of the nail that is usually visible on the thumb and great toe).”
So why does yellow nail syndrome happen and what does it mean? According to SELF, this means that the nail didn’t grow properly and is often a result of a lung condition called bronchiectasis or lymphatic disease. “Bronchiectasis is a condition in which damage to the airways causes them to widen and become flabby or scarred,” says Stern to the source. ” It can occur as a result of an infection or a more serious condition like lung cancer that compromises circulation which stunts the nail growth. “Because bronchiectasis tends to be chronic, yellow nail syndrome does too.”
5. Ridges Across Your Nails
These linear depressions that run along the width of your nail are also known as “Beau’s lines” (because it was named by French physician Joseph Honoré Simon Beau). The Mayo Clinic explains that these indentations occur “when growth at the area under the cuticle is interrupted by injury or severe illness.”
Beau’s lines is often associated with conditions like diabetes or peripheral vascular disease, as well as illnesses like scarlet fever, measles, mumps, and pneumonia, says the source. It can also be a sign that the person is suffering from a zinc deficiency.
6. Skin Separation
With a condition called onycholysis, your nail starts to come loose from the nail bed underneath, and causes whiteness of the nail, according to Healthline. It can also develop a yellow or green tinge, says the Mayo Clinic.
Onycholysis is often a result of an injury (trauma) or infection, but it can also be a side effect of a particular drug or consumer product like nail hardeners, says the Mayo Clinic. “Thyroid disease and psoriasis — a condition characterized by scaly patches on the skin — also can cause nail separation.”
7. White Nails
While we don’t want our nails to be yellow, we also don’t want them to be white. If the part of your nail closest to the cuticle is a solid white color and the part that’s furthest away from the nail bed is pink, then it’s called half-and-half nails, according to SELF. “It’s also referred to as Lindsey’s Nails,” says Dana Stern, M.D., assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical School and founder and CEO of Dr. DANA, the first dermatologist-developed nail care line when talking to the source. Nails that appear as “half-and-half” could indicate there is something wrong with the kidney. It could even be a symptoms of kidney failure, says the source.
8. Nails with Black or Brown Stripes
Your nails shouldn’t have any kind of color on them, unless it’s from nail polish, of course. A black or brown stripe on their nail, or any kind of pigmentation around the nail could mean that person has melanoma of the nail. “Melanoma is a type of cancer that most people tend to associate with the skin; however, melanoma can arise in the nail as well,” explains Dana Stern, M.D., to SELF. “The thumb, index finger and great toenail are the most common digits to have melanoma.”
If you notice that you showing signs of melanoma, don’t fret. While it should definitely be checked out by a healthcare professional, Stern tells SELF that most of the time these pigmented black or brown bands end up being benign moles. It tends to appear more frequently in people with darker complexions because their skin and nails have more pigment producing melanocytes. “When the melanocytes are stimulated, usually through trauma to the cuticle (aggressive and repetitive cuticle pushing, cutting, picking, or biting), ‘these cells begin to produce pigment, appearing as brown, lengthwise band in the nail,'” writes SELF.
In order to distinguish whether the black or brown bands are early melanoma or just benign pigmentation, go see a dermatologist. It is not something you’ll be able to distinguish on your own. It caught early, melanoma is fairly treatable, but it’s rarely diagnosed early.
9. Concave Nails
Concave nails are also referred to as koilonychia and they are often the result of iron-deficiency anemia or other related disorders like hemochromatosis and Plummer-Vinson Syndrome. Both of these disorders are also related to iron not being metabolized properly in the body. For example, Plummer-Vinson Syndrome occurs after long-term, chronic iron-deficiency anemia. The”Treating the iron issue can help to normalize the nails,” says Stern to SELF. “Anyone who suddenly develops spoon-shaped nails should have a work up by their physician.” There is a possibility this nail change could also just be a normal result of aging, notes the source.
10. Splinter Hemorrhages
When someone injures their nail it often causes black markings to appear, like a long, black, splinter-like line, says Men’s Health. In this case the answer to why these markings are showing up is simple, it’s a result of the injury. But if you can’t think of a time when your nail would’ve been injured, then it could be due to something completely different. Men’s Health also talked to Dana Stern, M.D., a dermatologist and nail specialist in New York City who says these splinter-like hemorrhages could mean the person has “bacterial endocarditis, an infection of the valves and inner lining of the heart,” writes the source. This condition usually stems from a dental or medical procedure. It can be treated with antibiotics.
11. White Spots
Ever noticed a white spot on your nails? The common misconception about these white spots is that they indicate a calcium deficiency, but this actually isn’t the case, says Health.com. “Usually, those white spots are not very significant,” says John Anthony, M.D., a dermatologist at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio to the source. “They’re often the result of minor trauma, such as if you whack your finger against something, and aren’t generally to do with calcium.”
If so, try pushing on the white spot to see if it fades. If it doesn’t fade it’s probably a mark from true leukonychia, says Men’s Health. This white discoloration is from an injury to the nail or an infection. In some rare cases it can be a sign of arsenic poisoning, says Chris Adigun, M.D., a board certified dermatologist and nail specialist in Chapel Hill, N.C., to the source.
If you notice this problem on your nails, have a doctor check it out to see if it needs to be treated for an infection.
12. Mee’s Lines
Similar to white spots, Mee’s lines show up as transverse white lines that run horizontally across the nail. According to Healthline, Mee’s lines are a sign of arsenic poisoning. “If you have this symptom, your doctor will take hair or tissue samples to check for arsenic in your body,” writes the source.
13. Terry’s Nails
Terry’s nails is somewhat similar to Lindsey’s nails as they both cause the nails to appear white. In the case of Terry’s nails, the nail will look white except for a narrow pink band at the top, says the Mayo Clinic. In some cases, Terry’s nails is simply a normal side effect of aging, but it can also be a sign of an underlying health condition like liver disease, congestive heart failure, kidney failure, or diabetes, warns the source.
14. Severely Bitten Nails
We all know that person who chomps on their nails incessantly or at one time had the bad habit of chewing their nails. Most people grow out of this habit and it can be extremely hard to break. However, there are some people who don’t and oftentimes it’s a sign of obsessive-compulsive disorder. “Sometimes psychiatric medicine is required to treat OCD-related nail biting,” says Debra Jaliman, MD, a New York City-based dermatologist and author of Skin Rules when talking to Health.com. “A bitter-tasting compound that’s polished onto the nail can help, too.”