London: Nails are made up of layers of a protein called keratin. They grow outwards from the cuticle, the area at the base of the nail. As new cells grow, older cells become hard and compacted and are pushed out towards the tips of the fingers.
Healthy nails should be smooth, without ridges or grooves and uniform in colour. Some common features are not causes for alarm. Vertical ridges that run from the cuticle to the nail tip are normal and become more prominent with age but not all deformities are harmless.
Facts Everyone Should Have at Their Fingertips
Some are signs of diseases that require medical attention. Follow our healthy nail guide to see what yours may be telling you about your health.
White spots on nails
Could mean: minor injury
For years, white spots on nails were thought to be linked with calcium deficiency especially in children. In fact, most medical experts now agree it has nothing to do with how much of the mineral is in your diet. Instead, white spots are usually caused by a minor injury such as a knock to the matrix or root, the growing part of the nail. The spots will grow out with time.
Could mean: poor circulation
Women about to undergo surgery are always asked to remove nail varnish and the reason is simple. One of the easiest ways for doctors to check how much oxygen is circulating in the blood is to check the nails.
Pink means healthy circulation but a blue colouration suggests that the body is low on oxygen because blood is not being pumped around the body correctly. This condition, known as cyanosis, can also be a warning sign for the early stages of heart failure.
Could mean: lung cancer
If fingernails are “dome” shaped and your fingers resemble clubs, it could be a warning sign of serious diseases such as lung cancer. In fact, it is one of the first things medical students are told to look for. Club-like nails are due to the build-up of a substance called PGE2 which helps dampen down inflammation in the lungs.
It is thought lung tumours send production of PGE2 into overdrive, churning out 10 times the amount the body needs. It then builds up in the tips of the fingers and causes swelling.
Could mean: anaemia
Most of us have nails that are convex which means they curve downwards like the surface of a ball. However, if your nails have a dip in the middle, it could be a sign of iron deficiency.
Doctors call this condition koilonychia or “spoon” nails and it is one of the first things they look for when they are trying to work out if a patient who is feeling tired and listless is suffering from iron deficiency anaemia and needs to take supplements.
Could mean: bronchitis
Yellow discolouration in your fingernails with slightly darker patches around the edges may result from a lung condition such as chronic bronchitis. The nails thicken, grow slowly and become discoloured.
However, it can also be a sign of lymphoedema, a condition where there is an abnormal build-up of fluid in the body that causes swelling in the legs and arms, as well as pneumonia and even rheumatoid arthritis.
Could mean: psoriasis
The surface of a healthy fingernail should be smooth but when it develops several small dents or becomes “pitted” it can be a warning sign that something is going on underneath. Often the cause is psoriasis, the inflammatory autoimmune skin condition that can trigger red, scaly patches on the body.
This is because the disorder affects nail cells as well as skin cells. Once the skin patches are treated, the nails will heal too, although it will take several months for the dents to grow out.
Could mean: diabetes
Sometimes when the body is struggling with hidden illness, our nails can develop horizontal indentations. These are known as Beau’s lines and they appear because the flow of oxygen to nail cells is temporarily interrupted. They often appear in heart attack or cancer patients.
However, they can also signify undiagnosed illnesses such as diabetes or peripheral artery disease where blood vessels in the lower legs narrow and become dangerously clogged.
Could mean: thyroid problems
Nails that break easily may seem little more than a minor nuisance for many women but they could signal a much bigger problem. The reason they break is that they are unable to retain moisture and start to crack. This can be a sign of an underactive thyroid, the gland which produces hormones to help regulate the body’s metabolism.