Health and Beauty Articles
When something is awry in the body, it puts the wheels in motion to alert you that something isn’t quite right. Everything from the texture of our skin, the colour of our tongues and the condition of our nails can all be telling signs. Particularly fingernail or toenail abnormalities can point towards an underlying medical condition.
I must admit, I had a bit of a panic when I began researching this topic. I was reading that ridges that run the width of the nail were a sign of an underlying health condition, and looking down at my own wonky thumb nail with said marks, I was on the verge of phoning the doctor like the hypochondriac I am. Alas, I remembered that I had done the cardinal sin of all nail technicians: I yanked off a gel nail two weeks previous and promptly destroyed the nail bed underneath. I really should practise what I preach more often! So for those of you who have nail conditions that aren’t a direct result of being reckless with your nails, here are some common and not-so-common nail abnormalities, what they could mean and how to treat or alternatively whether you should visit your GP.
1. Grooves across the finger nails (Beau’s lines)
This appears as a deep line or groove that travels horizontally across the nail bed. It can be a sign of: an underlying illness that began months ago; a result of chemotherapy; a previous injury or exposure to very cold temperatures. Grooves typically grow out with the nail, which take around 6 months for a fingernail and 6-12 months for a toe nail.
2. Brittle or crumbly nails
This could mean any number of things: it could simply be an over exposure to wet; or wearing nail polish too frequently, or it could boil down to a bit of nail neglect. This can be solved by frequent moisturising, manicures, wearing gloves when working with wet, and also by taking biotin (vitamin B7) supplements.
On the other hand, it could also indicate: a fungal nail infection, a skin condition called ‘lichen planus’ (an itchy rash), an underactive or overactive thyroid, or possibly nail psoriasis.
3. Fungal nail infection
This is most common in people who frequently wash their hands, as the protective skin at the base of the nail becomes damaged, allowing fungi to enter. You are also more prone to nail infections if you have other health conditions such as diabetes, psoriasis, poor circulation or a poor immune system, as well as if you smoke or live in a hot climate. If it is present in the toes then you must avoid touching or scratching them as this may spread the fungi onto the hands.
The nail will look thickened and discoloured, but will normally be painless. If the infection continues untreated it can become painful, and cause the nail bed to become damaged, sometimes with the nail falling off. Antifungal tablets can be prescribed by your doctor, such as Terbinafine or Itraconazole. A nail lacquer such as amorolfine can be obtained over the counter and can be applied topically. However this is not very effective for fungal nail infections that are close to the skin. It is a painstaking process as you have to apply as prescribed and it can take 6 months for it to clear!
4. Discoloured nails
White nails: This is usually due to a fungal nail infection or a sign of decreased blood supply to the nail bed, known as, wait for it – “Terry’s nails” (thankfully I didn’t name my salon this!) Terry’s nails are white with reddened or dark tips, which can be a sign of the following – liver cirrhosis (80% of sufferers have this nail condition), liver/kidney/heart failure, diabetes, anaemia, chemotherapy, overactive thyroid or malnutrition.
White lines across the nails: Parallel white lines across the nails (Muehrcke’s lines) are an indication of low protein levels in the blood. This can be caused by liver disease or malnutrition.
Half white, half brown nails: This can be a sign of kidney failure – up to 40% of patients with kidney failure have this nail condition.
Red or yellow drops under the nails: This is commonly found in patients with psoriasis.
Green-black nails: This can be caused by an overgrowth of bacteria called pseudomonas, particularly common if the nail is loose. Applying antibiotic eye drops under the nail or soaking in antiseptic solution can help.
Grey nails: This can be caused by medication i.e. antimalarials.
Brown nails: This can be caused by thyroid disease, pregnancy, malnutrition and over use of nail varnish.
Dark stripes: If you have dark skin, then this is very common. However, if your skin is not dark and these black stripes appear, it can indicate a form of cancer known as subungual melanoma. It’s important to visit the doctor if you notice anything similar to this.
Yellow nails: Smokers or fake tanning nails, take your pick!
5. Thick nails
There are a few different reasons for thickened nails on the toes. Commonly this could be a fungal nail infection. However, if an infection isn’t present, it could indicate psoriasis (a skin condition that is red and flaky on the skin), reactive arthritis or pressure from wearing shoes that are too small/narrow for the feet. If left untreated, they can resemble claws, and will become almost impossible to cut with conventional nail clippers. This is known as onychogryphosis. Although chiropody treatment can help, sometimes the nail will have to be removed completely by a podiatrist.
It’s important to establish good treatment of the feet from a young age – cut the toes regularly with toe nail clippers, file the nails and clean them daily with a nail brush.
6. Indented spoon-shaped nails
This is a condition which is more likely than other nail abnormalities to indicate a health problem. If the nails are indented in a spoon shape, it could mean the following: iron-deficient anaemia (lack of iron in the body), haemochromatosis (too much iron in the body), Raynaud’s disease (condition that affects the blood supply to the hands and feet causing them to turn white), or lupus erythematosus (where the immune system attacks the body’s cells, tissues and organs).
7. Dents on the nails
This appears as either a dent, or as if a nail layer has come off. It is more likely to indicate a skin condition, such as eczema or psoriasis, but can also indicate reactive arthritis or alopecia (hair loss condition).
8. Exaggerated curved fingertips and nails
The appearance is due to the tissue beneath the nail becoming thick as well as the fingertips becoming rounded and bulbous. It is thought an increased blood supply to the fingers causes this. It often runs in families and is nothing to worry about. However, if it comes on suddenly, it could be a sign of long-term lung disease or heart disease; inflammatory bowel disease; stomach or bowel cancer; cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) or polycythaemia (a condition where the blood is too thick).
9. Acute paronychia
This is caused by a bacterial infection in the nail fold, which can cause erythema, swelling and throbbing. It can be treated using oral antibiotics, or will clear itself in a few days. It can also be due to the cold sore virus.
10. Chronic paronychia
This is a more gradual condition which is difficult to get rid of. It can start in one nail fold, similarly to acute paronychia, but can then spread to other nail folds. Each nail fold will be swollen and higher than the nail plate. It will be red and tender; occasionally producing pus at the cuticle. The nail plate will become very ridged and distorted as it grows, with it often turning yellow or green and brittle. This is most common in people who have constantly wet hands (farmers, barmaids, cleaners). It is also found in people with hand dermatitis, and can be hard for those with poor circulation for the condition to clear. Topical steroids or oral medications may be prescribed by the GP.
So as with anything in the body, it is important to keep a close eye on the nails for any changes, as they can indicate any number of underlying health conditions. Out with this, keep your fingers and tootsies clipped, filed and cleaned to make sure you’re doing all you can to keep them healthy and pleasing to the eye. I don’t know why, but when your nails look good, you feeling blimin good too!