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Sunday, April 7, 2024

What Fingernails Can Tell Seniors About Their Health

Did you know that the color, thickness and shape of your nails can reveal diseases or other issues you might be having? Here’s what to look for.

Your fingernails can show you problems you might be having in other parts of your body. Crazy as it may sound, you can look for changes in your nails to show you potential medical conditions you may be dealing with, including issues with your liver, lungs, and even your heart. While usually these changes are due to lifestyle or an injured nail, they may be the result of disease or a nutritional imbalance. 

Why Do My Nails Have Ridges?

Vertical ridges, from the base of your nails to the tip, are often caused by age. As such, they’re nothing to worry about from a medical perspective. However, these ridges are sometimes the result of a skin condition such as eczema or psoriasis. They may be caused by an autoimmune disease, nutritional deficiency (iron, zinc or vitamin A), thyroid disease or alopecia. Check with your doctor if you think the ridges on your fingernails may have a cause besides getting older. 

To get rid of ridges, try moisturizing your nails. Use a cream or oil that contains ceramides or alpha hydroxy acids to trap moisture. If your nails are very dry and brittle, moisturize at bedtime and cover with a pair of cotton gloves while you sleep. And avoid washing your hands too often or putting them in water, since that actually has a drying effect. 

Clip and file your nails to keep them neat and on the short side, but always leave a bit of the white showing to allow for regrowth between trims. Avoid biting your nails, since that is traumatic to the area. Ditto for pushing back the cuticle.

You can gently buff the ridges out to make your nails look smoother. Just keep it to once a month or so; buffing thins the nail plate and can lead to split or broken nails.

Healthy nails are pinkish in color, smooth and firm, with a pale half moon located at the base. If your nails look different than this, you may want to consult a health professional to find out why. Here’s what to look for, starting with nail texture and firmness:

  • Thin or soft nails are most often the result of over-exposing them to detergent or nail polish remover with acetone. However, it could also be due to low levels of B vitamins, calcium, or iron. 
  • Cracked, split nails may be the result of immersing them in water too often, such as when you bathe grandchildren or wash dishes. They are sometimes linked to thyroid disease.
  • Peeling nails normally occur after trauma to the nail bed. Perhaps you used your fingernails to open some packages, or you were picking off old fingernail polish. Oversoaking can exacerbate the condition.
  • Pitted nails, when they are covered with tiny indentations, may be the result of psoriasis or alopecia areata, an autoimmune disease that also induces hair loss.
  • Spoon nails have a “scooped out” look. They may be caused by anemia, hypothyroidism, or liver problems. Contact your doctor to find the cause.
  • Horizontal ridges are most often the result of trauma before the nail had grown out. Known as Beau’s Lines, these could also be the result of previous high fever, vitamin deficiency, diabetes, or peripheral vascular disease. Another cause can be chemotherapy drugs.
  • Curved nails are part of a long process that develops over years, not days. The fingertips enlarge and the nails swell to grow around them. This condition can be inherited, or it may be due to lung disease, inflammatory bowel disease, cardiovascular disease, or liver disease. Check with your doctor to find the cause.
  • Ram’s horns refers to thick, overgrown nails and can be inherited, or the result of psoriasis or poor circulation. If you have this condition, you need a specialist to trim your nails and treat the underlying cause.
  • Nails can fall off due to an injury or infection. It may start with all or a portion of the nail turning white, green, or yellow and becoming tender or painful. The nail usually falls off in a matter of weeks and regrows from the base. This condition may also be linked to psoriasis. If the nail fails to grow back in normally, see your doctor.

Nail color can also be an important indicator that something is amiss. It may be inconsequential, but it could also be linked to a health condition. Check if you notice any of the following:

  • White spots are usually the result of injury, such as whacking your fingernail on something or getting rough or repeated manicures. If you have white spots but never experienced any trauma, you may have to consider whether you have a zinc deficiency, a fungal infection or allergic reaction. 
  • Blue fingernails are an indicator that your body lacks oxygen. This can be caused by heart disease or emphysema. If you don’t already have a diagnosis and your nails take on a blue tinge, see your doctor to check on the cause.
  • Yellow nails are fairly common and most often caused by staining from nail polish or smoking. If it’s related to a fungal infection, the nails themselves will thicken and crumble. Other possible causes include rheumatoid arthritis, respiratory disease, thyroid disease, and diabetes.
  • Dark vertical lines underneath the nail bed may be caused by melanoma, a serious skin cancer. Have a dark line checked out right away by your doctor. 

To see actual photos of many of these conditions, go here.

Usually, some other indicator of disease or condition will already have alerted you to a problem before you notice a change in your nails. However, if you do see something you can’t explain then it’s a good idea to check in with your doctor to make sure nothing new is going on.