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We spend lots of time and money keeping our nails in shape and painting them all the colours of the rainbow, but did you know that you can take a look through the pretty exterior to see what your nails tell you about your health?
Nails can not only indicate what illness you may have, but how long you have had it, as fingernails take up to six months to grow and act as a medical ‘timeline’.
WHAT YOUR NAILS ARE TELLING YOU
Excessive washing, poor nutrition and ageing are simple explanations for brittle nails, but a more serious ‘hidden’ illness may bring about changes in their appearance. The following guide pinpoints the most probable reasons for the condition of nails, with colour, bands, lines, texture and shape all being significant health indicators.
Light pink nails which are intact and have a little ‘lunula’, or half moon above the cuticle are considered healthy.
White, cloudy nails could indicate heart disease, kidney failure, liver cirrhosis, pulmonary tuberculosis, diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis.
White nails with reddened or dark tips (Terry’s nails) are caused by a decreased supply of blood to the nail bed and can indicate a wide range of conditions including: liver cirrhosis, liver failure, kidney failure, heart failure, an overactive thyroid or malnutrition.
Horizontal white lines (Muehrcke’s nails) are a result of a flood of blood into the nail bed, more commonly in the second, third and fourth fingers. Associated health issues include hypoalbuminemia (a deficiency of the protein albumin in blood plasma), liver disease, malnutrition, and nephrotic syndrome (kidney damage leading to the release of too much protein into the urine). Muehrcke’s nails are also a side effect of chemotherapy.
Horizontal white lines caused by the microscopic fragmentation of the nail after growth interruption could indicate heart failure, Hodgkin’s disease, renal failure, system-wide infection or heavy metal poisoning.
Half-and-half nails (Lindsay’s nails): the bottom half of the nail appears white and the top a darker pink-brown. This is due to swelling in the bottom of the nail bed and an increase in the production of melanin at the top. Possible causes are chronic kidney disease or HIV.
Thin, dark red or brown vertical lines or splinter haemorrhages are a strong indicator of endocarditis (infection of the heart valves). They are also caused by cirrhosis (irreversible scarring of the liver), mitral stenosis (a narrowing of the mitral valve in the heart), oral contraceptive use, pregnancy, peptic ulcer disease, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, vasculitis (inflammation of the blood vessels), and trauma.
Yellow nails that thicken and curve into the cuticle indicate lymphedema (impaired lymphatic drainage), pleural effusions (a build-up of fluids that line the lungs and chest cavity), and bronchiectasis (irreversible dilation of the bronchial tubes caused by mucous blockage).
Blue nails (either the lunula or the whole nail) could indicate Wilson’s disease (an accumulation of copper in the tissues leading to psychiatric symptoms and liver disease), silver poisoning, or quinacrine therapy (used to treat lupus and other health conditions). Poor circulation is a common cause of blue nails.
Red lunulas may be associated with hair loss, carbon monoxide poisoning, cardiac failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, hives, cirrhosis, collagen vascular disease, oral prednisone treatment (a corticosteroid medication for inflammation such as cortisone), or psoriasis.
Vertical brown streaks in the nail bed are common among people with dark skin but should be taken seriously amongst Caucasians as they could indicate melanoma.
5 fascinating nail facts
Changes in nail texture
Nails should generally be fairly smooth to the touch – the odd bump isn’t really anything to worry about. However, texture can change quite dramatically if there is an underlying problem elsewhere in the body.
A deep horizontal grove (Beau’s line) is caused by a disruption in nail growth, which could mean artery disease, pemphigus (an autoimmune disorder that causes blistering of the skin or mucous membranes), psoriasis, Raynaud’s disease (a condition restricting blood supply to the fingers and toes), systemic infection, or trauma.
Pitting refers to small, pinpoint depressions in the nails caused by problems in nail plate layering. This is seen in 10 to 50% of people with psoriasis. It can also be caused by hair loss, pemphigus, Reiter’s syndrome (a type of arthritis), and sarcoidosis (an inflammatory disease that affects multiple organs in the body, but mainly the lungs and lymph glands).
Changes in nail shape
A wide variety of health conditions can bring about changes in nail shape.
Spoon shaped nails (nails that are whiter, more fragile and curled up at the edges) may be associated with iron deficiency anaemia, iron overload, hypothyroidism, malnutrition, nail trauma, constant exposure to petroleum-based solvents, Raynaud’s disease, and lupus.
Clubbed nails or clubbing describes nails that have become thicker, harder, shinier, with a bulb shape, while the flesh below the cuticle becomes spongy. Clubbing is commonly caused by low oxygen levels in the blood and indicates chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, chronic bronchitis, congestive heart failure, and congenital heart disease. It can also signify liver disease, inflammatory bowel diseases, and cancer, often of the lung and its lining.
Separation of the nail from the nail bed from the top (onycholysis) is a possible indicator of many ailments including: anaemia, certain types of cancer, connective tissue disorders, fungal infection, psoriasis or psoriatic arthritis, reactive arthritis, amyloidosis (a variety of conditions caused by the deposit of abnormal protein in tissues and organs throughout the body), sarcoidosis (a multisystem inflammatory disease), syphilis, lupus, and most commonly trauma. It can also indicate hyperthyroidism, with the fourth and fifth nails possibly becoming brown.
Separation of the nail from the nail bed at the base (onychomadesis) is most often caused by trauma. Other causes include fungal infection, Raynaud’s disease, frostbite, hand foot and mouth disease, poor nutrition, febrile illness (an illness that occurs with the sudden onset of fever), and vascular disease (any condition that affects your circulatory system).
In addition to the above conditions, even nail-biting is an indicator of mental health. According to Dr Knox a dermatologist at the Swedish Medical Centre in Seattle: ‘Patients who are more anxious or obsessive compulsive do tend to bite their nails more frequently.’
Gel manicures a danger
Gel manicures may present a health hazard as the UV light used to create the hard finish may cause skin cancer. Dermatologists recommend:
Natural Medicine editorial team.
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