If you're like most people, you have a pretty simple routine for taking care of your nails. Maybe you clip them occasionally and forget about them the rest of the time, or maybe you have a standing mani-pedi appointment at the neighborhood nail salon. Either way, you probably don't consider your nails to be a big part of your overall health.
You might be surprised, then, to realize that the condition of your nails can indicate some serious health problems. Spoon-shaped nails can indicate iron-deficiency anemia, for instance. Chronic liver disease can turn your nails completely white. Rheumatoid arthritis, chronic bronchitis, congenital heart disease -- all sorts of ailments can change the appearance of your nails. Of course, not all changes signal a problem. The appearance of vertical ridges in your nails, for instance, is a natural and harmless consequence of aging.
Yellowing nails are unique in that they can have several different causes, some benign and some very serious. In this article, we'll look at those causes, as well as some of the different ways to treat them. It's worth noting, however, that changing the appearance of your nails is notoriously difficult. Unlike, say, skin cells, your nails aren't made of living cells and, accordingly, can't repair themselves. As a result, many treatments for yellowing nails involve fixing the cause and waiting for a healthy nail to replace the discolored one. So with that in mind, let's start by looking at a treatment perfect for the least serious cause of yellow nails.
Nail care is big business in the United States. With more than 50,000 manicurists and pedicurists in the country, you don't have to travel far to get your nails looking great [source: U.S. Bureau of Labor]. It's ironic, then, that getting your nails polished can sometimes leave them looking a little yellow. The pigments used in nail polish, particularly darker shades, can stain your nails over time.
The good news is that you can create whitening solutions with over-the-counter ingredients you may already have in your medicine cabinet. Hydrogen peroxide, baking soda and even denture cleaners are all popular choices for whitening yellowing nails. These solutions are gentle on your skin, meaning there's no harm in giving them a try. And if the results aren't quite what you hoped for, you can always polish your nails again or use a nail whitening pencil to lighten the tips, giving your nail a brighter look.
The next treatment on our list might not have so many tangential benefits, but in some cases, nothing else will do.
Yellow nails can have a number of different causes, as we mentioned, but fungus is one of the most common. In fact, roughly 50 percent of nail discoloration is caused by fungal infections [source: MedicineNet]. Besides having an undeniable gross factor, nail fungus can also be painful and even pose serious health risks to individuals with weakened immune systems. Accordingly, you should set an appointment with your doctor at the first sign of nail fungus. While over-the-counter medications are available, they're typically much less effective than prescription medications. In fact, even with treatment from your doctor, nail fungus can be difficult to get rid of. In some cases, the infection will recur, making effective treatment that much more important.
For most infections, your doctor will prescribe an oral anti-fungal medication, which you'll need to take regularly for a month or longer. In time, the infected portion of the nail will grow out and be replaced by new, healthy nail growth. Make sure to tell your doctor about any pre-existing conditions, however, because anti-fungal medications can have serious side effects for people with certain liver and heart problems. For more information about nail fungus, read Nail Fungus: Fast Facts.
Among the many causes of yellow nails is a rare disease known as yellow nail syndrome. The cause of yellow nail syndrome is unknown, though patients often have problems with their lymphatic systems and, less commonly, problems with their respiratory systems. Yellow nail syndrome can dramatically affect the nails' appearance, turning them a golden yellow and causing them to separate from the nail bed.
While the change in appearance is often permanent, some patients have found success taking zinc supplements. Over the course of several years, one Australian patient reversed the yellowing by regularly taking zinc orally [source: Arroyo and Cohen]. While zinc's effectiveness for treating yellow nails is up in the air, popping enough of the element has other benefits, such as preventing infection and helping night vision.
If you're looking for a treatment with some positive side effects, read on.
By now, you have an idea of how difficult treating yellow nails can be. One treatment that may offer some hope involves using vitamin E. Results have been mixed so far, with one study finding that a topical vitamin E solution proved no more effective in treating yellow nail syndrome than a placebo [source: Lambert et al.]. Another study, however, found that taking vitamin E orally in combination with medications for yellow nail syndrome or fungal infections can produce some very positive results, sometimes clearing the nails up within a 10-month period [source: Robert and Luc]. Interestingly enough, while topical application of vitamin E solution had little effect treating discoloration, it did promote general nail health.
Like zinc, vitamin E provides additional health benefits, encouraging healthy skin and eyes, making vitamin E an important part of your diet regardless of its effectiveness in treating yellow nails.
Vitamin E and zinc are important to nail health but don't overlook other vitamins and minerals to help keep nails (and hair) healthy and strong.
Supplements, Vitamins and Minerals
If you're taking calcium supplements under the assumption that you're doing your nails a favor, hang on -- it's never a good idea to assume. Results of a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine suggest that calcium supplements aren't actually helpful in keeping nails strong and healthy [source: Reid]. But there are other vitamins and minerals that will give your nail health a boost. Let's look at protein, iron and the B vitamins.
Protein helps with nail growth and strength, and it's recommended that you aim to get about 10 to 35 percent of your daily calories from protein sources (that's about 46 grams for women and about 56 grams for men) [source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]. Iron is also important for nail health, and helps keep spoon-shaped nails from developing. And there is some evidence that biotin -- which is especially helpful in keeping horse hooves healthy and strong -- and other B vitamins may be beneficial in keeping nails in good condition, too.
Choose Nail Polish and Polish Removers Carefully
Polishing your nails, whether with a clear coat or this season's hottest new shade, may give your nails a bit of an advantage against day to day damage, and if you apply a clear base coat before color polishes you'll help protect nails from developing a yellow discoloration. Despite that, though, the ingredients in the nail polish and polish removers you choose may be sabotaging your nail health -- especially if you apply them frequently. Some of these products contain ingredients that are drying-- and potentially hazardous to your health-- including acetone, formaldehyde, toluene sulfonamide-formaldehyde resin, phthalates and methanol. Try to limit using nail polish removers to no more than once a week, and choose products that are water-based rather than solvent-based to avoid allergic reactions and skin irritation.
Don't Overlook Your Medications
Many of us take prescription and over-the-counter medications to prevent, relieve and treat medical conditions, and with those medicines we may expect a few side effects. An upset stomach during antibiotic treatment. Maybe some photosensitivity with acne medication. But some medications come with side effects in an unexpected place: your nails. For example, did you know that the common acne treatment tetracycline may cause yellowing nails in some patients? And that's not all. Another antibiotic, minocycline, may give nails a blue hue. Drugs that contain colloidal silver protein, chemotherapy drugs, and some drugs used to treat HIV and AIDS may all cause nails to darken.
Try Essential Oils
Don't overlook essential oils for keeping nails and skin healthy -- tea tree oil, for example, may help treat acne, dandruff, scabies, vaginal infections, ringworm, and other fungal and bacterial infections, including athlete's foot and onychomycosis -- a common fungal infection of the nails.
Tea tree oil is an essential oil that's made from the leaves of the tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia), and it can be useful in treating nail infections because of a natural active antimicrobrial compound in it called terpinen-4-ol. Never take tea tree oil orally -- dilute it before use and apply it topically to your skin and nails to help prevent and treat fungal infections.
Of course, the only thing better than finding the perfect treatment for yellow nails is to never have them in the first place, which brings us to the last two items on our list.
Practice Proper Nail Care and Good Hygiene
One way to help prevent and treat nail problems is to practice good nail care and hygiene. Wash and dry your hands properly, which means lathering up with warm water and soap and scrubbing for at least 20 seconds -- about the time it takes to sing "Happy Birthday to You" to yourself twice -- and scrub everything from the back of your hands to the spaces between your fingers. And don't forget to clean underneath your nails, where not only dirt but bacteria and fungus can hang out. Dry your hands (and feet) thoroughly to discourage fungal growth.
In addition to practicing good nail hygiene, you should keep nails and cuticles hydrated by applying moisturizer daily. Try petroleum jelly or olive oil, or choose a thick, creamy lotion that contains lactic acid or urea to help prevent cracking. And stop biting your fingernails -- not only will your chewing damage the skin around your nails, it also leaves nails susceptible to infection from bacteria in your mouth.
Some causes of yellow nails, like psoriasis and yellow nail syndrome, are outside of your control. In other cases, however, you can do a lot to keep your nails healthy and looking great. For instance, to lower your chance of a fungal infection, try not to expose your nails to moist, dark environments. This is particularly important for your toenails, since socks and shoes can trap in moisture and put you at risk of infection. Avoid walking barefoot around pools and showers as well, since the moisture in those environments encourages infection. And if you need another reason to quit smoking, dropping the habit can keep your nails from getting stained with nicotine.
More important than your nails' appearance, however, is what your nails are telling you about your health, so if you notice changes in the way your nails look, make sure to bring it up with your doctor.
Keep reading for more links to nail knowledge.
Fingernails can grow to extreme lengths. Learn more about how long and fast fingernails can grow in this HowStuffWorks Now article.
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