How can nails be signals of systemic disease?

Unhealthy fingernails.
Personal Hygiene ­Image Gallery Pay attention to your nails and note any changes in color, texture and shape. See more personal hygiene pictures.
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Palm readers claim to know your future health and longevity by reading your "life line." Although that method isn't very scientific, there may be some merit to examining the hands to determine your overall well-being -- only it's the nails, rather than the palms, that you should be keeping track of. Even though nails aren't made of living tissue, they can reflect the health of living cells at the nail base. So, changes in the color, texture or shape of your nails may indicate a long list of underlying medical conditions [source: WebMD].

If your nails change color when you haven't put on any nail polish, they might be providing important clues about what's going on in the rest of your body. For example, nails that have turned completely white may be a sign of liver disease, and if the skin beneath your nails has turned red, it could indicate heart problems. Nails that turn a shade of yellow but are blue at the base can point to diabetes [source: AAD].


The texture of your nails may also say something about your health. Nails that are grooved or pitted could indicate psoriasis, malnutrition or respiratory disease, among other things [source: Mayo Clinic].

Shape also matters when it comes to your nails. Nails that begin to break away from the nail bed or curve up at the sides could reveal iron deficiency anemia or a thyroid disorder, not to mention diabetes or some sort of infection [source: Mayo Clinic]. The list goes on and on: Congestive heart failure, protein deficiency, circulatory problems, fluid in the lungs, kidney disease, lupus, lead poisoning and more can all cause changes to your nails or nail bed [sources: AAD; WebMD; Mayo Clinic].

But before you worry yourself sick about the state of your nails, keep in mind that sometimes a problem with the nails is nothing more than that. For example, white spots on your nail are often caused by some sort of trauma, such as slamming your finger in a drawer. Inflammation or discoloration might also mean you have a nail fungus [source: AAD].

The best practice is to pay attention to your nails and note any lasting changes to their color, texture or shape, especially if these changes are accompanied by other changes in your general health. Report your concerns to your physician for a diagnosis.

If you'd like to know more about how your skin and nails can indicate health problems, check out the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). "Nail Fungus & Nail Health." (Accessed 10/11/09)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Slide Show: Fingernails -- 7 Signs of Possible Health Problems." (Accessed 10/11/09)
  • Nissl, Jan. "Nail Problems and Injuries - Topic Overview." WebMD. (Accessed 10/11/09)
  • Rauh, Sherry. "Healthy Fingernails: Clues about your health." WebMD (Accessed 10/11/09)
  • WebMD. "Video: Nail Health" (Accessed 10/11/09)