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Healthy Fingernails: Clues About Your Health

Fingernail color and texture can reflect a wide range of medical conditions.

By Sherry Rauh

Reviewed by Matthew Hoffman, MD

WebMD Feature

Take a good look at your fingernails and you may notice subtle variations in the texture or color -- a touch of white here, a rosy tinge there, perhaps some rippling or bumps in the surface. These imperfections may not look like much to you, but it's more important than you might think to maintain healthy fingernails. That's because to the trained eye, nails can provide valuable clues about your overall health.

Tips for Strong, Healthy Fingernails

To maintain healthy fingernails, avoid infections, and improve nail appearance, try the following tips:

  • Keep your nails clean and dry.
  • Avoid nail-biting or picking.
  • Apply moisturizer to your nails and cuticles every day. Creams with urea, phospholipids, or lactic acid can help prevent cracking.
  • File your nails in one direction and round the tip slightly, rather than filing to a point.
  • Don't remove the cuticles or clean too deeply under your nails, which can lead to infection.
  • Don't dig out ingrown toenails. See a dermatologist if they become bothersome.
  • Avoid nail polish removers that contain acetone or formaldehyde.
  • Bring your own instruments if you get frequent manicures.
  • If you have artificial nails, check regularly for green discoloration (a sign of bacterial infection).
  • Eat a balanced diet and take vitamins containing biotin.

Finally, to maintain your healthy fingernails over time, ask your doctor to take a look at them during your next checkup.

"Just like the eyes are the window to the soul, so are the nails," says Tamara Lior, MD, a dermatologist with Cleveland Clinic Florida. Lior says she once convinced a patient to have his lungs checked after noticing a bluish tint to his nails, a sign that he wasn't getting enough oxygen. Sure enough, he had fluid in his lungs.

Warning signs for many other conditions, from hepatitis to heart disease, may also appear when previously healthy fingernails undergo changes, according to Joshua Fox, MD, director of Advanced Dermatology and spokesman for the American Academy of Dermatology. "Changes in the nails can be a sign of a local disease like a fungus infection or a sign of a systemic disease like lupus or anemia," Fox tells WebMD.

He says he sometimes tries to guess if a person has anemia by looking at his or her nails. He explains that pale, whitish nail beds may indicate a low red blood cell count consistent with anemia.

An iron deficiency can cause the nail bed to be thin and concave and have raised ridges.

While most of Fox's patients don't come in to report nail problems, he routinely checks patients to make sure they have healthy fingernails. "The nails offer many little clues to what's going on inside you. Lupus patients get quirky, angular blood vessels in their nail folds. Psoriasis starts in the nails up to 10% of the time" and causes splitting and pitting of the nail bed.

Heart disease can turn the nail beds red. Obsessive-compulsive disorder can show up in the nails through persistent nail-biting or picking, Fox says.

Even common disorders like thyroid disease can cause abnormalities in the nail beds, producing dry, brittle nails that crack and split easily.

He lists the following 10 examples of nail changes that could indicate a serious medical condition.

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