What do the way your nails look say about your health? A lot more than you think

It’s been said that a person can tell a lot about their health by looking at their nails, but how can we know what are normal signs of aging and what are signs of a bigger problem? 

Changes from aging 

According to Thomas Knackstedt. M.D., a dermatologist and nail expert at Cleveland Clinic, our nails can say a lot about our internal health, but there are some things that are common changes that happen with age. 

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“The common things we see include white spots on the nail,” said Dr. Knackstedt. “For ages people have said that’s related to calcium deficiency or need for more iron; it can be, but in most people it’s just friction and rubbing to the cuticle and the nail fold – that causes little pits of trauma in that area.”  

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Issues such as ridging, brittle nails and split ends are some of the other most frequent age-related complaints. 

Dr. Knackstedt said the aging of our nails is a lot like the greying of the hair – we don’t have to like it, but it is part of what happens as we age. 

Don’t go overboard 

Dr. Knackstedt said many nail problems he sees are the result of overly aggressive care. 

He advised against trimming cuticles, as too much trimming can cause the root of the nail to become exposed and can alter the growth pattern of the nail.  

Likewise, he has seen people suffer from lifting of the nail from cleaning too aggressively underneath their nails, which can cause bacteria to get trapped underneath and cause infection. 

Serious problems 

Aside from aging issues, Dr. Knackstedt said that there is one particular nail issue that shouldn’t be ignored. 

A new colored line in the nail – most often brown or red lines – can be the sign of nail melanoma – a rare form of cancer. 

“Individuals, especially adults, who develop a brown line growing out in one of their nails, and that line subsequently either widens or darkens or starts to change colors; that’s something that should be evaluated by a physician just like a changing freckle or mole,” said Dr. Knackstedt. 

Dr. Knackstedt said that in comparison to skin melanoma, nail cancer is rare accounting for only about two to three percent of all melanoma cases. 

However, he says nail melanoma is dangerous because it’s often caught in later stages, because people don’t always look for it the way they check skin moles.

This story was originally published on on March 3, 2017.

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