9 Things Your Nails Can Tell You About Your Health

The way your nails look can point out a lot regarding your health.

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Photo: Getty Images

Nails can offer an important glimpse into your overall health. Having strong, healthy nails isn't just good news for your manicure: Unpleasant nail symptoms could also indicate bigger health problems. We spoke with John Anthony, MD, a dermatologist at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, and Debra Jaliman, MD, a New York City-based dermatologist and author of Skin Rules, about the nail symptoms you shouldn't ignore and which are totally normal.

Yellow Nails

"This can happen naturally with age," Dr. Anthony said. "But it's also sometimes due to nail lacquers or acrylic nails." If you often wear acrylic nails or paint your nails and are having this problem, try taking a break from the salon and give nails a chance to recover. Other possible causes are smoking, which can stain nails and give them a yellowish hue, and yellow nail syndrome—a rare disorder where an individual has thick yellow nails that usually occur alongside respiratory issues and limb swelling, per the Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center (GARD).

Dry, Cracked, or Brittle Nails

This issue is a common one, and there are a few possible causes. "Soft, brittle nails can occur from dryness on the nail plate," Dr. Jaliman said. "This could be from swimming, overuse of nail polish remover, frequent dishwashing without gloves, or just from living in a low-humidity environment." Other possible causes include chemicals (such as if you're frequently exposed to cleaning products) or aging. However, if brittle nails are an ongoing problem, talk with your healthcare provider: sometimes hypothyroidism (a condition where the thyroid works too slowly) causes this side effect too.

To soothe cracked nails, try slathering them with a super-moisturizing lotion. Like your skin, nails are absorbent, and lotion can prevent them from drying out in the future. Dr. Jaliman recommended choosing a product that contains hyaluronic acid, glycerin, or Shea butter (we like SheaMoisture Raw Shea Butter). If that doesn't help, you can also try taking biotin, an over-the-counter nutritional supplement that promotes healthy nail growth.

Clubbing

"Clubbing of the nails—when the ends of your fingers swell and the nail becomes curved and rounded—can sometimes be a sign of liver or kidney disease," Dr. Anthony said. Additionally, per a May 2021 Clinical Medicine article, clubbing can also occur in conditions related to lungs and the gastrointestinal tract (e.g., lung cancer, IBD). Thus, contact your healthcare provider as soon as possible if you find that you are experiencing this nail condition.

White Spots

Many people believe that white spots on nails indicate a calcium deficiency, but this isn't typically the case: "Usually, those white spots are not very significant," Dr. Anthony said. "They're often the result of minor trauma, such as if you whack your finger against something, and aren't generally to do with calcium."

Horizontal or Vertical Ridges

"I sometimes see transverse (side to side) ridges on nails," Dr. Anthony said. "This is typically the result of direct trauma to the nail or a more serious illness, in which case you'll see it on more than one nail at a time." When your body is working overtime to combat an illness, it saves its energy for the important stuff. "Your body is literally saying, 'I've got better things to do than make nails' and pauses their growth," Dr. Anthony explained.

You might also have horizontal ridges on your nails for another reason: "Horizontal lines across the nail plate can also be caused by a drug reaction, for example if the patient recently had chemotherapy," Dr. Jaliman said. MedlinePlus further noted that surgery also might be the cause of horizontal ridges.

Vertical ridges are usually a normal sign of aging. "Just like wrinkles on your face, you also get lines on your nails as you age," Dr. Jaliman said.

Severely Bitten Nails

Nail-biting (known medically as onychophagia) is a common habit, usually brought on by some sort of stress or even done to seek attention, according to an International Journal of Women's Dermatology article published in June 2021. If it's excessive—say, constant biting or picking at the skin around the nails—it could be a sign of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). "Sometimes psychiatric medicine is required to treat OCD-related nail biting," Dr. Jaliman said. "A bitter-tasting compound that's polished onto the nails can help too."

"Spoon" Nails

"Spoon" nails refer to a very thin nail which has become concave in shape. Per the May 2021 Clinical Medicine article, spoon nails can be the result of trauma around the nail or skin diseases that lead to nail thinning. However, spoon nails are mostly due to something else: "This is usually a sign of iron deficiency anemia," Dr. Jaliman said, who recommended speaking to your healthcare provider if you're experiencing this. "It can be treated with iron supplements." Extremely pale nails could also be a sign of iron deficiency anemia.

Pitting

According to MedlinePlus, if you have "small depressions on the nail surface," you might be experiencing nail pitting; in some cases, the affected nails can crumble or become loose and potentially fall off. Speak to your healthcare provider if your nails are covered with pits or dents, as this could be a sign that you have psoriasis, Dr. Jaliman said.

Dark Stripes or a Painful Growth

If you have black discoloration on your nails (such as black streaks) or a painful growth on the nail, see your healthcare provider immediately. "Melanoma that comes from the nail unit is serious, and can sometimes cause black lines or stripes to appear on the nail," Dr. Anthony said. "So if you see those changes happening on your nails, it's important to see a doctor."

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