Text by Dr. Nina Radcliff/Photos by K. Cecchini
It’s all fun and games until someone breaks a nail. Correction. It’s all fun and games until someone’s nails become yellow, pit, club, or spoon. In addition to helping us scratch and protect our fingertips, nails have also been described as a window to the entire body. In other words, they can yield a tremendous amount of information about your overall health; including warning signs about malnutrition, infection, and serious disease. And it’s all right at your fingertips.
Here is Dr. Nina’s What You Need To Know about your nails, the windows to your health:
What exactly are nails?
The short answer is, they are composed of layers of keratin, a protein that’s also found in our skin and hair. The deeper understanding is that the nail is made up of 6 parts. The nail plate is the hard, protective piece that we see, cut, and polish. The nail fold is the skin around the plate and the site of pesky and painful hangnails. The nail bed is the skin underneath the transparent nail plate. The nail base is the whitish crescent moon at the nail base. The cuticle is the tissue overlapping the nail at the base. The matrix is the area under the protective cuticle at the base of the nail bed and where your nail grows from.
Speed of growth
Fingernails take six months to grow and toenails a full year. As a result, they can tell a story of how long you have been ill. FUN FACT: They grow faster in the summer months, in men, and in the dominant hand.
Yellow nail syndrome
Nails thicken and growth slows. This causes a yellowish discoloration of the nail plate. The nail plate may also detach from the bed and the cuticle may disappear. Yellow nail syndrome is often a sign of respiratory disease such as chronic bronchitis. If your nails are yellow but growing normally, this may be a sign of diabetes. Glucose attaches to collagen proteins in the nails giving them the yellowish appearance.
Small depressions in the nails. It is most common in people who have psoriasis (a condition characterized by scaly patches on the skin), but can also be seen in connective tissue disorders.
The nails soften, bulge at the tips, and curve around the fingertips. They appear to float over the nail bed instead of being firmly attached. This can indicate chronic low levels of oxygen typically from lung disease or inflammatory bowel disease, heart disease, or liver disease.
Spoon nails (koilonychia)
Nails become soft and concave (scooped away from the finger). The curvature becomes large enough to hold a drop of liquid. This can be related to an iron deficiency anemia, hypothyroidism, or liver disease.
The tip of each nail has a dark band. In some cases, this can be the result of aging. However, it may indicate liver disease, congestive heart failure, or diabetes. A single dark line or spot should also be investigated as soon as possible as it may be caused by melanoma, the most dangerous type of skin cancer.
Indentations that run across the nails. They result when growth under the cuticle is interrupted by injury or severe illness such as uncontrolled diabetes, peripheral vascular disease, high fever, or pneumonia.
Most of the above conditions are, fortunately, rare. However, leukonychia, white spots in your nails, are relatively common. They do not represent calcium deficiency, but are most likely the result of a past injury to the nail plate or matrix (similar to folding or denting clear plastic). In some cases the white spots can result from an allergic reaction to nail polish or a mild infection.
It is a code of silence that what happens at the nail salon stays at the nail salon. But if your nails appear to indent, club, or pit this is something that you should share with your doctor to rule out more serious illness. Nails serve as a window to our overall health. So make sure you look inside to see what is going on!