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Infections, anemia, psoriasis: What nails can reveal about your health

The shape, texture and colour of your nails can speak volumes about your overall health.

, ET Bureau|
Last Updated: Oct 03, 2018, 08.59 AM IST
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Brittle nails
You may or may not pay much attention to your nails, unless you’re thinking of your next manicure. You may like to keep them long, or clipped, buff it or paint it. But do you know that nails can tell you a lot about your health?

If you see white spots, discolouring, ridges, brittleness and so on, it could mean a lot more than just a missed manicure appointment. Health issues including fungal infection, psoriasis, troubles with thyroid and even issues with your liver, stomach and heart can show symptoms on your nails.

“The shape, texture and colour of our nails act as a window to our inner health and can signal an underlying health condition. Some abnormalities are harmless while others can indicate serious health conditions. Changes in the appearance of our fingernails, nail-breaking or nail separation, discolouration and spots can be symptoms of infections, deficiencies, anaemia, diabetes or heart and lung conditions. Nail growth slows down during bouts of severe infection or high fever. Changes in nail colour can be due to nail fungus, cancer, kidney or liver problems,” said Roshini Gilbert, vice-president of nutrition & fitness services at HealthifyMe, an online fitness service company.

Gilbert added that some nail conditions, such as nail discolouration to yellow or red, change in shape, inflammation and so on require medical diagnosis and treatment by a doctor or a dermatologist, while others can be treated by simple self-help techniques and lifestyle changes.

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Dr Purushottam Vashistha, a consultant gastroenterologist at Nanavati Super Speciality Hospital, Mumbai, pointed out that nails are affected by poor nutrition, especially if our body loses protein in kidney disease or gastrointestinal disease where absorption is poor. He added: “In anaemia, nails become flat or concave. In some liver conditions such as cirrhosis and Wilson’s disease, nails are whitish and lunula (a small part of nail which is blue near the nail bed) disappears.” It’s best to keep a close check on your nails for discolouration, shape as well as texture as it may provide clues to what’s happening in your body.

“The most common thing to look out for is clubbing of nails, where nails become club-shaped and fingertips and the nail beds look swollen and extremely convex. Clubbing denotes various kind of cardiac, lung, gastrointestinal and thyroid disease,” said Vashistha. However, he said, it could also be genetic.

In psoriasis, nails are frequently involved and they lose their shape and become irregular and flat. He said nails are an important part of general examination of a patient to diagnose certain diseases.

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Not just physical health
You may sometimes find yourself biting your fingernails under stress. “Mental stress can affect your nails just like physical illnesses. Examination of the nails is an integral part of the mental status examination of the patient. Acute stress episodes can have an adverse effect on nail growth and chronic stress can cause longitudinal ridges of the nails. The nails can even give a clue to substance dependence like tobacco-staining,” said Dr Gopikrishnan Anjaneyan, associate professor, department of dermatology, Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences, Kochi. He said signs like overgrown or unkempt nails can be a sign of depression, while biting of nails may suggest anxiety disorders. “Persons with obsessive compulsive disorder can have injury to nails and nail folds due to excessive tampering,” Anjaneyan said.

Gilbert said environmental factors also contribute to the health and growth of our nails. “For instance, nails grow faster in summer than in winter. Special care should be taken throughout the winter season to protect our nails from bacterial infections. Frequent washing, handling detergents and soaps can dry out nails, making them brittle. Similarly, long hot showers also strip away the natural moisture from our skin and nails.

Take care
Nails are the window to your body’s health. Healthy nails are smooth, strong and have consistent pink colouring. They need regular cutting, cleaning, moisturising and good nutrition. “Diet plays a vital role in the proper functioning of our body. Unhealthy nails indicate a deficiency of certain minerals and vitamins in our body. A balanced diet with the right nutrients can take our nails from being dry and brittle to healthy and strong,” said Gilbert. She suggests a diet rich in dairy, lean meats and lentils to keep the strength of nails and to avoid discolouration. Wearing gloves while handling household chores and moisturising cuticles regularly can help in maintaining healthy nails, she added.

Anjaneyan too said that nails are adversely affected in cold, dry and less humid environments. Many nail disorders may even be affected by one’s occupation and immediate surroundings like exposure to heavy metals and toxic chemicals. He suggested drinking at least eight glasses of water every day, along with intake of fresh fruits and vegetables, to keep nails healthy.

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