Fingernails seem like a pretty uneventful body part. They grow. You cut them. Maybe paint them. And that’s about it. But in reality, your nails can give you a glimpse into your overall health. If something is going on in your body, your nails could start to change, sometimes developing ridges. Depending on what the ridges in fingernails look like, you might want to schedule a visit to the doctor.
Lines running from the bottom of the nail to the tip are the most common form of ridges in fingernails, affecting about 20 percent of adults. In the vast majority of cases, it’s just a sign of aging, says Ivy Lee, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in Pasadena, California. Fingernails are made mostly of keratin, a protein also found in the hair and outer layer of skin. In the same ways that the skin gets drier and the hair feels rougher, the nails also change with age because the body has a harder time retaining moisture.
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7 Things Your Nails Tell You
7 Things Your Nails Tell You
1. Pale Nails
The problem isn’t so black and white when it comes to white nails. If your fingernail beds are looking a little ghostly, you may have anemia, a blood disorder characterized by a low red blood cell count. “Anemia resulting from low levels of iron can lead to inadequate oxygen in the blood, which causes the skin and tissues to become pale, particularly the tissues under the nails,” says Shilpi Agarwal, M.D., a board-certified family medicine and integrative and holistic medicine physician in Los Angeles. Be sure you’re consuming good sources of iron, including green leafy vegetables, beans, and red meat, to boost your levels.
More seriously, pale nails could also be a sign of early diabetes or liver disease, both of which can lead to impaired blood flow. “When diagnosed early, diabetes can often be controlled with dietary changes,” Dr. Agarwal says. Avoid processed foods with refined sugars and carbs, and eat more fiber, vegetables, and whole grains. “These will help stabilize blood sugar levels and limit circulatory damage caused by uncontrolled sugar levels,” she says. For liver disease, a trip to the doc for testing is a must-do for accurate diagnosis.
2. Yellowing or Thickening
Yellow nails certainly don’t look pretty, and what causes the hue is even grosser: “Thickened nails, with or without a yellow-ish tone, are characteristic of fungal infections that generally traverse the entire nail bed,” Dr. Agarwal says. She adds that topical medication is often no help since the infection is in the nail bed and underlying nail plate. Your doctor can prescribe an oral med, which will reach the entire breadth of the infected nail.
Even if you diligently check your skin for questionable moles monthly, you likely overlook your nails, a place where dangerous melanoma often goes unnoticed. “Dark brown or black vertical lines on the nail bed should never be ignored,” Dr. Agarwal warns. “These can be a hallmark sign of melanoma, which requires early detection and treatment.”
Leave your nails bare periodically so you can examine them, then go get a mani. “Sunlight is unable to penetrate through polish, so any shade other than a clear coat will provide an adequate barrier from the sun,” Dr. Agarwal says. Smart idea since your nails’ smooth surface makes it hard for sunscreen to be absorbed into the nail.
4. Pitting and Grooving
Depressions and small cracks in your nails are known as “pitting” of the nail bed and are often associated with psoriasis, an inflammatory disease that leads to scaly or red patches all over the body. “Individuals who suffer from psoriasis develop clusters of cells along the nail bed that accumulate and disrupt the linear, smooth growth of a normal nail,” Dr. Agarwal explains. “As these cells are sloughed off, grooves or depressed areas are left behind on the surface.” A physical exam is often all you need for a diagnosis, after which your doctor may recommend topical, oral, or injected medications or light therapy.
5. Brittle, Thin or Lifted Nails
Breaking a nail can be a bummer, but if your tips seem to crack at the slightest touch, it could mean your thyroid is amiss. This gland in your neck regulates metabolism, energy, and growth, and too little thyroid hormone often leads to hair loss, brittle and thin nails, and nails that grow slowly, Dr. Agarwal says.
Thyroid disorder also manifests itself by causing your nail plate to separate from the nail bed in a noticeable way. “Lifted nails are thought to occur because the increase in thyroid hormone can accelerate cell turnover and separate the nail from its natural linear growth pattern,” Dr. Agarwal explains.
Brittle, thin, slow-growing, or lifted, see your physician ASAP for a simple blood test that can check for thyroid disorder, which can be treated with medications.
Stripes on your nails are only a good thing if they are painted on. Horizontal white lines that span the entire nail, are paired, and appear on more than one nail are called Muehrcke’s lines. These could be an indication of kidney disease, liver abnormalities, or a lack of protein and other nutrients, Dr. Agarwal says. “They are thought to be caused by a disruption in blood supply to the nail bed because of underlying disease,” she explains.
Shorter horizontal white marks or streaks, however, are likely just the result of trauma to the base of your nail. These may last from weeks to months and usually will disappear on their own.
7. Blue Nails
A blue face is a clear indication that someone’s lacking airflow, and blue nails mean the same thing—you’re not getting enough oxygen to your fingertips. This could be caused by respiratory disease or a vascular problem called Raynaud’s Disease, which is a rare disorder of the blood vessels, according to Dr. Agarwal. Some people just have slower blood circulation, especially when exposed to cold temperatures, she says, but have a physician check your blood and oxygenation levels if your nails are persistently blue.
Ridges in fingernails that run side to side are less common and might give you more pause. Also known as Beau’s lines, they could signal disease or just be a remnant of an old injury, says Dr. Lee. “They arise because there is a temporary stop in nail growth in the proximal nail matrix, where the fingernail is made,” she says. “They are most often benign and due to mechanical trauma: manicures, jamming your finger in the door, etc.”
RELATED: Take note
12 things your mother's health says about you
12 things your mother's health says about you
Genetics play a big part in health conditions, so looking at your mom’s health can give you a clue what’s to come. This is especially true of complications that affect women more than men, like osteoporosis, a weakening of the bones. According to the CDC, osteoporosis affects 25 percent of women over 65, but only six percent of men—and recent research has found genetic variants predisposing some people to the disease. “There is strong evidence for an increased risk of osteoporosis if your mother had it,” says Todd Sontag, DO, a family medicine specialist with Orlando Health Physician Associates. “Many times this has to do with an inherited body structure of having lower body weight—less than 58kg [128 pounds] in adults or a BMI of less than 22.” Another risk factor is simply having a parental history (mom or dad) of hip fracture, he says. To mitigate these affects, make sure you’re getting enough calcium and vitamin D, and are living a healthy lifestyle. Here are the signs you’re not as healthy as you think.
Wonder if you’re going to get wrinkles or skin damage? Take a look at your mom’s face. Research has shown that male and female skin ages differently due to different hormones. “Your mother’s ability to break down collagen and the age when it started breaking down—the age when she got wrinkles—are passed down to you, as well as the pattern of collagen breakdown: Did she get wrinkles around her eyes first, or deeper lines around her mouth?” says dermatologist Purvisha Patel, MD, creator of Visha Skin Care. “Looking at pictures of her as she ages helps you understand how to combat your aging process.” Daily sunscreen and an anti-aging serum with retinol, vitamin C, ferulic acid, and vitamin E work to fight these genetic effects, she says. In addition, your skin type, passed down from your mother and your father, can affect your chances of sun damage and skin cancer. Those with fairer skin are most at risk. This is what dermatologists wish you knew about preventing wrinkles.
If you’re aware of what psychologists wish you knew about depression, you might already know that depression is diagnosed twice as often in women as in men, possibly as a result of hormonal fluctuations and women’s response to trauma and stress. “Another important aspect in gender studies shows that women have a more chronic course of depression than do men,” says psychologist Deborah Serani, PsyD, award-winning author of Living With Depression. “This means that females experience depression more often and for a longer duration of time than males.” Plus, it’s genetically linked, with Harvard Medical School experts noting that certain genetic mutations associated with depression occur only in women. So if your mother had depression, you should be on the lookout for symptoms, and get treatment if needed. “This is why knowing your family medical history is so important to become proactive about your own personal health,” Dr. Serani says. Here are the signs you’re healthy from every type of doctor.
Women are more likely to have the eye condition glaucoma, and are also more likely to be visually impaired or blind from it, says the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO). Thanks to menopause, women are also more likely to have dry eye syndrome, which frequently occurs with glaucoma. Plus, glaucoma runs in families—so if your mom (or dad) has it, be sure to let your eye doctor know, and get screened for it regularly. “You are at higher risk for developing glaucoma and [another eye condition] macular degeneration if your mother had it,” says Dr. Sontag. “Just like everything else, there are other lifestyle factors that contribute as well.” The AAO says to also avoid smoking to reduce your risk. Here’s how to improve your eyesight—without eating carrots!
There are multiple reasons you might have a migraine, and your mother is just one of them. According to the Mayo Clinic, women are three times more likely than men to have migraines, likely because of hormonal fluctuations. The National Headache Foundation notes that 70 to 80 percent of migraine sufferers have a relative who gets the debilitating attacks as well. “One of the main risk factors for migraines is family history of migraines,” Dr. Sontag says. “So yes, if your mother has migraines, you are more likely to develop them as well.” Emerging research is identifying how and why genetics play a role, with one large international study suggesting it may have to do with how the blood vessels function in the brain. But until we know more, if your mother suffers from migraines, you can try to reduce your risk by limiting other risk factors, like getting regular exercise and sleep, managing stress, and avoiding caffeine and any individual food triggers.
Nearly two-thirds of those with Alzheimer’s are women, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. The exact reasons why are yet unknown, but seem to go beyond the simple fact that women live longer than men. Researchers have also found genetic links for Alzheimer’s. “There are genetic alleles that have been identified that increase risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease,” Dr. Sontag says. “A maternal history does increase the risk.” The National Institute on Aging reports that if your mother or father has a genetic mutation for early-onset Alzheimer’s (which appears from your thirties to mid-sixties), there’s a 50/50 chance you will inherit it—and if you do, there is a strong possibility of developing the disease. If your mother had Alzheimer’s or other dementia, you can reduce your risk by exercising, eating a heart-healthy diet, maintaining social ties, and staying mentally active. These are the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease every adult should know.
Weight, body shape and fitness level
As with many other aspects of health, the condition of your body is partly genetic, partly environmental. So if your mother has a certain body type or weight, you may be more likely to have the same one—but that could be the result of learned behaviors, too. “While there is some solid research to support a maternal’s body shape and weight and its influence on her children, this is definitely not the only contributing factor,” Dr. Sontag says. “Many times, the lifestyle of the mother is what is learned and passed down to her kids, which includes the way she eats and exercises.” So if you grow up eating the same way as you mother, it’s not surprising if you develop a similar body. Likewise, the fitness level you can achieve is part hereditary, part lifestyle. “Genetics do play a strong role in our muscle make-up,” Dr. Sontag says. “No matter how much certain people train, they will never be as fast as Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps.” Still, if your mom is overweight, you can help avoid the same fate by eating healthy and exercising, with the goal of being the healthiest you can for your individual body.
Heart disease and diabetes
Women may believe they don’t have to worry about heart disease, but just like men they need to understand their genetic heart disease factors. Given genetic similarities in weight and body shape, you and your mother might also have a similar risk of heart disease, the number one killer of women, as well as type-2 diabetes. A recent study presented at the American Society of Human Genetics found that maternally inherited gene variants of how women store fat can affect their risk of type-2 diabetes. “There is strong evidence that if your mother has heart disease, type-2 diabetes, or strokes, that you are at a higher risk to develop them,” Dr. Sontag says. “The younger the age that the mother developed it tends to correlate with a higher risk in the children.” But again, there are lifestyle factors to consider. “If your mother had a heart attack at 50, but weighed 300 pounds, never exercised, and smoked, the risk may be completely related to her lifestyle,” he says. “You can’t have soda every day and ice cream every night and then use your family history as an excuse when you develop diabetes.” Still, if your mother (or father) had early heart disease, Dr. Sontag recommends a checkup with a cardiologist. These are the physical and emotional ways heart disease is different for women.
Pregnancy and fertility
If you’re looking to see what your pregnancy experience will be like, ask your mother about carrying you. “Gestational diabetes is more common in women who are risk for adult onset diabetes, which does run in families, so if you have a strong family history of diabetes, you are at increased risk for gestational diabetes,” says Pamela Berens, MD, an OBGYN with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth and Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital. In addition, “preeclampsia is more common in women who have had high blood pressure, and high blood pressure may be inherited.” A Norwegian study showed severe morning sickness, or hyperemesis gravidarum, may be inherited as well. As for issues getting pregnant, most causes of infertility and miscarriage are not genetic—but some may be. “There appears to be an increased risk of endometriosis in first-degree relatives of women with endometriosis,” Dr. Berens says. “Rarely, some women with recurrent miscarriages can have an inherited chromosome issue that makes miscarriage more common, and genetic testing can be done.” For some other infertility conditions, such as PCOS, it’s not clear yet whether genetics are at play.
You should also ask your mom if she suffered from postpartum depression after pregnancy. Like other aspects of mental health, it may be passed from mother to daughter. “Studiesshow that postpartum depression is genetically linked,” Dr. Serani says. “Your risk for PPD increases if your mother, or another family member—sister, aunt—has experienced it.” One small study from Johns Hopkins found specific chemical alterations in two genes that, when they occur during pregnancy, can predict whether a woman will develop postpartum depression with 85 percent accuracy. The researchers hope this will eventually lead to a blood test that can give pregnant women a better indication of their risk—but for now, knowing your family history is important. “Ask your mother about her postpartum experiences,” Dr. Serani says. “This can informally clue you in to whether or not depression is a risk factor for you.” Here are seven dangerous postpartum depression myths.
Breast and ovarian cancers
Awareness on the genetic link of breast and ovarian cancers may be due in part to Angelina Jolie, whose mother died from breast cancer. After discovering she carried the BRCA1 gene, the actress underwent a preventive mastectomy, reducing her breast cancer risk from 87 percent to under 5. “The gene mutations that are most commonly associated with hereditary breast and ovarian cancer are the BRCA1 and 2 gene mutations,” Dr. Berens says. “If you have a suspicious family history—for example, if you have multiple family members with breast or ovarian cancer, if the breast cancer happened at an early age, or if the same family member had both cancers—it is more suspicious that you could have a genetic tendency.” Talk to your doctor about your individual risk if you mom or other female relatives had one of these cancers, and consider seeing a genetic counselor for genetic testing.
Studies have shown that the age at which your mother went through menopause will be partly responsible for when you do. In addition, if your mother went through menopause early, you should let your doctor know. “Premature ovarian insufficiency, before 40, can be caused by a number of conditions, and some of these conditions can be inherited—for instance women who are fragile X carriers,” Dr. Berens says. Fragile X is a gene mutation linked to the X chromosome, and it can trigger anxiety, hyperactivity, and intellectual disability. As for menopause symptoms such as hot flashes and night sweats, Dr. Berens says scientists are trying to clarify if there’s a genetic link. The first study of its kind in humans, from UCLA, might have found a related gene variant, but more research is needed. Next, check out what your sweat says about your health.
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Sometimes, though, they point to a skin disease like eczema, psoriasis, or chronic paronychia (an infection of the nail folds that makes the skin swollen and red), so inspect your skin and fingertips for signs of redness and rash. Your dermatologist might be able to offer a treatment option. While you’re at it, look into these things your nails can reveal about your health.
But it’s not all about the skin—ridges in nails can also be a sign of other systemic problems. For instance, an over- or underactive thyroid can affect the hormones in charge of nail, skin, and hair growth, resulting in ridged nails in some cases. If all 20 finger- and toenails develop Beau’s lines at the same time, it could even be an infection like pneumonia, mumps, or syphilis, or even a problem with the heart, liver, or kidneys. Particularly if your ridged nails have also become thinner, split, discolored, or misshapen, schedule a visit with your dermatologist pronto to get to the bottom of the problem, says Dr. Lee. In the meantime, read up on 42 other strange symptoms that can signal a serious disease.
Wear gloves when working in the garden, and always wash up before heading inside. Additionally, avoid backyard burning of household trash.
Your big, comfy couch
Your favorite sofa could be killing you, and not just because it lures you away from activity: Many sofas, mattresses, and other cushioned furniture are treated with TDCIPP, a flame retardant known to cause cancer (i.e., a carcinogen). TDCIPP was used so frequently prior to 2013 that a study out of Duke University found it in the blood of everyone they tested. It's also one of ten chemicals most frequently found in household dust, according to this study.
Cadmium is a carcinogenic byproduct of cigarette smoke. If you smoke in your house, cadmium and other cigarette smoke by-products may be lurking, especially on soft surfaces such as curtains and carpet—even long after the smell of smoke is gone. There's even such a thing as third-hand smoke and it's resistant to even the strongest cleaning products. Here's where you can learn more about third-hand smoke and its dangers.
Chromium (VI) is a known carcinogen found in tanned leather, wood furniture, certain dyes and pigments used in textiles, and cement. To give you an idea of the prevalence of chromium VI, one study out of Denmark found that almost half of imported leather shoes and sandals contained some level of the carcinogen.
What can you do?
As with TCIPP, pay attention to labeling. And don't be shy about asking questions of your furniture salesperson.
Your old fridge
According to cancer.org, carcinogenic PCBs can turn up in old appliances, fluorescent lighting fixtures, and electrical transformers. While no longer commercially produced in the United States, PCBs are still manufactured and used in developing countries, and of all PCBs ever produced, up to 70 percent are still in the environment. Diet is another major source of exposure, according to Gushée.
What can you do?
Get rid of those old appliances and fluorescent light fixtures. Pay attention to advisories regarding PCB-contaminated fish and fish-eating wildlife.
Your cleaning products
Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen found at home in food, cosmetics, a variety of cleaning products (such as dishwashing liquids, fabric softeners, and carpet cleaners), paint, foam insulation, and on permanent press fabrics. In addition, you can be exposed by breathing smoke from gas cookers and open fireplaces.
The dry-cleaning chemical perchloroethylene (tetrachloroethylene or "perc") is a carcinogen that can build up wherever you store your dry-cleaned clothes. It's also found in spot removers, shoe polish, and wood cleaners.
Phthalates are suspected of causing cancer and may adversely affect human reproduction or development. They're found in vinyl flooring, shower curtains, synthetic leather, miniblinds, wallpaper, and anything made with PVC vinyl. They're also found in food packaged in plastic.
Everyone knows arsenic is poisonous, but in smaller doses, it's also carcinogenic. Yet you can find it in foods you probably eat regularly—including chicken, rice, and certain fruit juices, as well as in degreasing products, dyes, furniture wax, glues, lubricants, nylon, and paints.
Asbestos has been out of favor for decades, thankfully, but you can still find it in the insulation of older homes. As the insulation eventually deteriorates, asbestos fibers become airborne. Since asbestos fibers stick to clothing and shoes, workers exposed to asbestos on the job can also bring asbestos into their homes.
Styrene is a known carcinogen widely used in the manufacturing of polystyrene plastics, which can be made into foam and rigid plastic products such as cups, plates, trays, utensils, packaging, and packing peanuts. Styrene may leach into your hot coffee or soup if you're using styrofoam containers. It's also present in cigarette smoke and in all of these home maintenance, automotive, and crafting products. What can you do? Avoid using styrofoam to hold hot foods and liquids, and read your product labels carefully. Find out the 12 foods you should never microwave.
Pantry pests and other creepy crawlies can carry disease. But if you eliminate them using chemical pesticides, you're increasing your risk of cancer. Chemical pesticides include those that you use on your pets, such as flea collars and tick-repellant.
Radon is formed naturally from the radioactive decay of uranium in rocks and soil. It raises the risk of lung cancer—especially if you also smoke, says Ashley Sumrall, MD, FACP, a Charlotte-based oncologist. If you live in an area where the amount of uranium and radium in rocks is high, you can be exposed to radon through cracks in your foundation. You can also be exposed to radon if you have a granite countertops.