Have you ever thought about what our fingernails and toenails are really for? Well, besides looking nice, they have an important job – they protect the sensitive tips of our fingers and toes.
Surprisingly, podiatrists can learn a lot about our overall health by checking our nails. Changes in nail color, shape, and strength can tell them if we’re healthy or if something might be wrong.
But here’s the thing: we often don’t pay much attention to our nails, and they can have common problems like being brittle, cracking, or splitting. These issues can happen for all sorts of reasons, like spending too much time in water or using chemicals on them.
So, understanding what healthy nails look like, spotting these problems, and knowing how to prevent and treat them is essential for taking good care of our nails and our health.
Anatomy of a Healthy Nail
To understand how to keep your nails healthy, it’s important to know a bit about nail basics. Nails have different parts, and each part has a job to do:
Nail Plate: The visible, hard part of the nail, known as the nail plate, serves as protection for the sensitive tissues beneath. It’s primarily composed of keratin, a tough protein.
Nail Bed: The nail bed is a soft tissue area rich in blood vessels, which nourish the nail and give it its pinkish hue. It also helps in anchoring the nail to the finger or toe.
Cuticle: The cuticle is a thin layer of skin that covers the base of the nail plate. Its function is to seal and protect the area where the nail plate and the skin meet, preventing infection and debris from entering.
Lunula: The lunula is the visible, crescent-shaped white area at the base of the nail. It’s actually part of the nail matrix and is responsible for nail growth. The lunula is a crucial reference point for assessing nail health.
Nail Matrix: Located beneath the cuticle, the nail matrix is the tissue responsible for producing new nail cells. These cells harden as they move forward, forming the nail plate.
Nail Root: The nail root is the base of the nail where it originates under the skin. It’s not visible but plays a vital role in nail growth.
Hyponychium: This is the tissue located beneath the free edge of the nail. Its purpose is to seal the space between the nail plate and the fingertip, providing a barrier against infection.
Common Nail Problems:
1. Brittle Nails
Types: Brittle nails can be quite bothersome, especially for women, as they are prone to splitting and breaking easily. There are essentially two types of brittle nails: dry and brittle, and soft and brittle. Dry and brittle nails result from insufficient moisture, often due to frequent handwashing without proper moisturizing. On the flip side, soft and brittle nails occur when there’s an excess of moisture, often from exposure to detergents or nail polish remover.
Cause: Age can also play a role in making your nails more brittle. Additionally, certain health issues like low iron levels or an underactive thyroid, known as hypothyroidism, can contribute to brittle nails. If you have hypothyroidism, your doctor may prescribe levothyroxine as a treatment. Another condition called Raynaud’s syndrome, which affects blood circulation, can impact nail health. Doctors may recommend medications like calcium channel blockers to manage it.
Prevention and Repair: To address dry and brittle nails, you can try several approaches. Use hand lotions containing lanolin or alpha-hydroxy acids to keep your hands and nails moisturized. Apply this lotion after washing your hands and before bedtime. When doing household chores, like washing dishes, wearing gloves can help keep your hands dry and shield them from harsh chemicals. For nail care, maintain short nails to reduce the risk of water and chemicals seeping in. Use a gentle emery board to file your nails in one direction and avoid habits like picking or biting your nails. Nail hardeners can be beneficial in strengthening your nails. If you use nail polish remover, choose one without acetone and use it sparingly.
2. Cracked nails
Cracked nails can be both a sign of possible health issues and a reflection of everyday habits. Understanding what causes them and taking steps to protect your nails can help maintain their strength and function.
Causes: Cracked nails can result from various factors, including aging, frequent exposure to water, regular manicures, fungal infections, nutritional deficiencies, psoriasis, and thyroid disorders. These factors can make your nails thinner, more vulnerable to breakage, or prone to fungal infections.
Symptoms: Cracked nails, often referred to as split nails, can occur in different parts of the nail and are typically thinner than usual. They may feel brittle and flake off. Sometimes, they can bend easily or feel “soft.”
Prevention and Repair: Preventing cracked nails involves minimizing exposure to water, avoiding excessive manicures and acetone-based nail polish removers, maintaining proper nutrition, and addressing underlying health conditions. Treatment depends on the cause, and it may include antifungal treatments, topical medications, or specialized light therapy. While many cracked nails can be managed without medical intervention, consult a healthcare provider if you notice concerning signs.
3. Peeling nails
Peeling nails can be quite bothersome, and they may result from external damage or underlying health issues. Nails serve both cosmetic and protective functions, made of the protein keratin. Peeling, or onychoschizia, can make nails thin and prone to splitting.
Causes: Trauma or prolonged exposure to water, like dishwashing, can lead to peeling nails. Other causes include activities that stress the nails, nail polish removal, and the use of false or acrylic nails. If both your fingernails and toenails peel, it might indicate internal factors like a vitamin deficiency, especially iron.
At-Home Care: To address peeling nails, increase iron intake through foods like fortified cereals, lean meats, and spinach. You can also take an iron supplement, but be cautious not to overdo it, as excessive iron can affect zinc absorption. Moisturize your nails, wear protective gloves for chores involving water, and apply lotion after swimming.
Prevention: When using artificial nails, remove coatings gently to avoid damage. File your nails in a curved shape to prevent snagging. Buff your nails with a one-direction motion for a healthy appearance. Protect your nails from excessive moisture by using clear nail polish, potentially with nylon fibers for strength. Avoid using your nails as tools, as this can weaken them; use your fingertips instead.
The Impact of External Factors:
In our pursuit of beautiful nails, we frequently expose them to various challenges. Understanding these challenges is essential to discover effective strategies for maintaining their health and beauty.
Prolonged Exposure to Water: Prolonged and frequent exposure to water can take a toll on your nails. When your nails absorb excess moisture, they become soft and more susceptible to damage. Activities like doing the dishes without gloves or spending extended periods in the pool can lead to weakened, peeling, or splitting nails. To protect your nails, it’s advisable to minimize the time your hands spend submerged in water and wear protective gloves when engaging in wet tasks.
Chemical Exposure (Nail Polish, Removers): Nail polish and nail polish removers often contain harsh chemicals that can harm your nails. Acetone, a common ingredient in many nail polish removers, can strip your nails of their natural oils, making them brittle and prone to peeling. Frequent use of such products can lead to long-term damage. Choosing nail products that are acetone-free and gentle on your nails can help minimize the negative effects of chemical exposure.
Artificial Nails and Their Effects: While artificial nails can enhance the appearance of your nails, they come with potential downsides. The application and removal processes can weaken your natural nails, leaving them thin and fragile. Artificial nails can trap moisture underneath, creating a breeding ground for fungal infections. Additionally, improper maintenance of artificial nails can lead to bacterial or fungal growth. It’s essential to exercise caution when using artificial nails and ensure that they are applied and removed by professionals to minimize these potential risks.
Special Considerations for Toenails
Common Toenail Problems
1. Toenail Fungus
Causes: Toenail fungus, medically known as onychomycosis, is a prevalent condition, affecting approximately 10 percent of people. It becomes more common with age, with around half of all individuals over the age of 70 experiencing this infection. Fungus can enter your toenails through a fungal infection on your foot or by walking barefoot in places where others with infections have been.
Symptoms: Initially, you may notice a white or yellow spot beneath the tip of a toenail. As the fungal infection progresses, the nail can become discolored and thickened. It may crumble and develop jagged edges, potentially spreading to other toenails or the surrounding skin. People with diabetes are at a higher risk of toenail fungal infections.
2. Ingrown Toenail
Causes: One of the most common and painful toenail problems, an ingrown toenail occurs when the corner or side of the toenail grows into the flesh. Causes include cutting toenails too short, cutting them in a curve instead of straight across, injuring the toenail, or having unusually large or curved toenails.
Symptoms: Ingrown toenails can lead to redness, pain along the side of the nail, swelling around the toenail, and pus drainage.
3. Toenail Trauma
Causes: Trauma to toenails can result from various incidents, such as stubbing your toe, dropping a heavy object on your foot, wearing ill-fitting shoes, picking at your nails, or engaging in activities like running or ballet dancing.
Symptoms: Symptoms vary based on the type of injury but may include pain, throbbing, dark red or purple spots under the nail, split or torn nails, nails lifting away from the skin, thickening of the toenail, discoloration, or bleeding.
4. Clubbed Nails
Causes: Nail clubbing refers to changes around and beneath the toenails that give your toes a widened, club-like appearance. It is often associated with underlying medical conditions, including heart disease, lung disease, gastrointestinal disorders, and cancer. In some cases, it can be hereditary.
Symptoms: Clubbed nails can manifest as a widening and rounding of the toenails, downward curving of the nails, a pronounced angle between the cuticles and nails, softening of the nail beds, nails appearing to float, or bulging of the toe tips.
5. Discoloration of the Nail Plates
Causes: Discoloration of toenail plates is typically less concerning than other toenail problems. It can result from contact with substances like nail polish or shoe dye, certain medications (such as cancer drugs, antibiotics, and autoimmune disorder treatments), or a rare medical condition.
Symptoms: Apart from discoloration, there are usually no other associated symptoms with discolored nail beds. In rare cases, nail plates may turn white.
Causes: Leukonychia refers to the whitening of the nail plate and can come in different forms, including white streaks, partial whitening, or complete whitening of the nail. It can result from various causes, including an inherited gene mutation, certain medical treatments like chemotherapy, heavy metal poisoning, or unknown factors.
Symptoms: Symptoms of leukonychia encompass white spots on the nails, partial or complete whitening of the nails.
Treatment of Toenail Problems
The appropriate treatment for toenail problems depends on the specific issue and its underlying cause. For instance:
Toenail Fungus may require prescription antifungal pills and several months to resolve. Prevention includes maintaining clean, dry feet, avoiding walking barefoot in public areas, not sharing nail clippers, selecting licensed and sterilized nail salons, and managing diabetes properly.
Ingrown Toenails may involve lifting the nail or partial/complete removal. Prevention includes wearing well-fitted shoes and trimming toenails straight across.
Toenail Trauma necessitates treatment based on the injury type. Options include surgery and medication.
For other causes, such as Clubbed Nails and Leukonychia, addressing the underlying condition is essential.
In conclusion, understanding the intricacies of nail health, recognizing common issues, and adopting proactive care routines are essential steps in achieving and maintaining strong, beautiful nails. By following the guidance provided in this article, you can safeguard your nails and ensure they continue to reflect not only your grooming habits but also your overall well-being.