When I was in my late 20s, I remember looking at my fingernails and I seeing these tiny dents in them. I first noticed them in my left pointer finger. I racked my brain, thinking maybe I got it stuck in a door or hit something a few times, but obviously we remember those kinds of painful experiences.
Then I noticed the little dents on every nail — I kept running my hands over the grooves. Maybe I was wearing too much nail polish or there was a skin product I was using that my nails didn’t like. My grandmother told me it was probably because I was lacking something in my diet — something I’d never really thought about before.
The dents eventually went away, but they reappeared during all of my pregnancies.
The truth is, our fingernails can be a window into what’s going on inside of our bodies, just like our skin and hair can go rogue when we are doing something our bodies don’t like.
We may think our nails aren’t in great shape from fake nails, too much polish, or picking at them too much, which is possible. However, damaged, spotted, weak, or ridged nails can also be a signal of other issues.
Scary Mommy spoke with Dermatologist Dr. Cynthia Bailey, Founder of Dr. BaileySkinCare.com via email, and she gave us some great insight into what our fingernails are trying to tell us about our health.
What I had in my late 20s is called Transverse lines, also known as Beau’s lines. Bailey says that this is the most common nail problem she sees. Sometimes all the nails contain the horizontal line, and other times it is more noticeable on the larger nails like your thumb and index finger.
Bailey says, “This can happen because of trauma or because of an illness.” Trauma or illness can cause your nails to temporarily stop growing as “your body needs to put all of its energy into healing,” says Bailey. These lines will grow out eventually — about six months after the trauma or illness — and keep in mind you won’t notice the lines three months after the illness or trauma.
Pitting, or little ice-pick depressions in the nails, can be a sign of multiple problems. Bailey says, “The most common problem associated with nail pitting is psoriasis. People with psoriasis often have nail problems.” If you have noticed pitting in your nails it could be a sign of arthritis. “There are studies that show psoriatic nail changes can be associated with arthritis,” says Bailey, “so I always check the nails of my patients with psoriasis and ask how their joints are doing.”
When the fingertips appear thickened and abnormally bulbous, this is known as clubbing. “This can be a sign of low oxygen content in the blood which can occur in lung disease or heart failure. See your doctor if you think you have this type of nail problem,” says Bailey.
If you ever see dark lines or streaks under the nails, Bailey advises seeing your doctor right away. The exception is if you have them on multiple nails and have a darker skin tone. In this case, Bailey says dark lines can be normal. “But, if you suddenly notice a new dark streak under your nail, particularly when no other nails have dark streaks, this is a reason to see your doctor,” she says.
Melanoma skin cancer can grow underneath the nail and show up as a dark streak. It is important to catch early. Bailey adds, “Keep in mind that people with dark skin types are at higher risk of melanoma on the hands and feet than people with a lighter skin type.”
If you have ever damaged your nails and seen tiny blood clots that run lengthwise along your nails, these are known as splinter hemorrhages. Bailey says if you type a lot, you may get these at the tips of your nails, which isn’t much cause for concern. However, splinter hemorrhages can be a sign of an underlying illness.
“This is particularly possible when several nails are affected and when the splinters are closer to the cuticle than the tip of the nail. In this case, they may be a sign of a blood infection called endocarditis where bacteria in your bloodstream land on the heart valve,” says Bailey.
Another condition associated with splinter hemorrhages is vasculitis which is “inflammation of your arteries which can be seen in autoimmune diseases, among other conditions.” says Bailey. If you notice these symptoms, call your doctor and make an appointment.
If you have bad circulation (like I do), you may notice that your fingernails look blue when you are cold. While this is normal, Bailey says if your fingernails always look blue as “it could be a concerning finding called cyanosis which means low amounts of oxygen in the blood.” This also requires a quick call to your doctor where they will most likely check your blood, heart, and lungs, says Bailey.
If your fingernails turn up at the ends, also known as spooning, this can be assigned to an iron deficiency, says Bailey. Keep in mind, this spooning effect is pretty common and normal in babies but in adults, it usually means something is wrong.
More common problems (especially in women) are rough, cracked nails, or nails that break easily. Healthline reports this could be from constant wetting of the nails. If you are someone who has to constantly wash hands or get your hands wet, wearing gloves can be a quick fix.
You can also try lotions to strengthen your nails, but if this doesn’t work, Healthline says you should call your doctor as it could be hypothyroidism or an iron deficiency.
If your nails are peeling with no recollection of trauma, your diet may be low in iron. Healthline suggests taking biotin, or upping foods rich in iron such as lentils, potato skins, or red meat.
Yellow nails are pretty common too and could mean a few things. The discoloration could be the result of anything from an infection of the nail to a product like nail polish. There are many over the counter treatments for yellow nails, but if you’re concerned, definitely contact your doctor.
So, even if you feel fine but notice something different about your nails, pay attention. Changes in the nail often mean something inside of us isn’t working properly, and it’s important to pay attention to the signals our nails are giving us.