As well as helping us to pick up and manipulate objects, nails protect the tissues of the fingers and the toes. However, they can also be a barometer of our health which explains why finger and toenail checks may be included in a GP's physical examination.
Below we list some of the changes to look out for and explain what you can do to keep your nails up to scratch.
Nail ridges may indicate illness
Fine lines running across your nails may indicate a recent illness which often slows nail growth, producing ridges in the nail root that are pushed outwards as the nail grows.
Solution: The ridges will grow out with time.
White spots on nails
These are usually caused by a minor injury such as a knock to the matrix, the growing part of the nail, or on toenails by badly fitting shoes or a sports injury.
Solution: The spots will grow out with time.
Spoon-shaped nails can indicate iron deficiency
Misshapen nails that bend backwards can indicate an iron deficiency.
Solution: Eat plenty of iron-rich foods such as lean red meat, dark green vegetables, whole grains and nuts, especially almonds.
Learn more about how iron affects health
Fingernail pitting could mean psoriasis
Lots of pits the size of a pinhead on the nail surface can be the sign of a general skin disorder such as psoriasis or eczema and can occur with alopecia (hair loss).
Solution: Pitting should disappear once the underlying cause has been treated.
Find out more about psoriasis
Pale nails can indicate anaemia
Anaemia can be the cause although a kidney or liver disorder may also be to blame.
Solution: Ask your doctor for advice. Once the underlying condition has been treated nail colour should return to normal.
Yellowing, discoloured nails? Possible fungal infection
This often indicates a fungal infection (onychomycosis). It is most common in toenails and often follows on from athlete's foot.
The end of the nail separates from the nail bed and white, green, yellow or black matter builds up under the nail plate.
Solution: An oral anti fungal medication (terbanifine) is the most commonly prescribed treatment and is successful in around 85 per cent of cases, although it can take up to six months or more to work. Anti fungal creams are less successful as they can be difficult to apply under the nail.
A swollen finger points to a bacterial infection
A swollen, throbbing area round the nail (paronychia) is usually the result of a bacterial infection entering the nail fold through a cut or break in the skin.
Solution: A course of antibiotics is the normal treatment.
Treatment for hangnails
These thin dry strips of skin that partly split off from the side of fingernails are usually caused by excessive dryness, a bad manicure, nail biting or a small injury.
Solution: Cut hangnails off near the base; resist the urge to pull them.
Treat split nails
These are usually a sign that your hands have been in water too much or that your washing up liquid is too harsh.
Solution: Wear gloves and go for regular manicures.
Black fingernails are often caused by injury
Blood collects under your nail after an injury such as trapping your finger in a car door. The nail may separate from the nail bed and fall off but will regrow.
Solution: If blackness is not caused by injury or is still there after a week, see your doctor.
Treating an ingrown toenail
These are caused when a nail (usually on the big toe) curves under on one or both sides and cuts into the surrounding skin, causing inflammation and sometimes infection.
Wearing badly fitting shoes that put pressure on the toenails from above and cutting toenails down their sides instead of straight across are the usual causes.
Solution: Consult your GP or chiropodist as soon as you notice an ingrown toenail to avoid infection.
Your doctor may suggest you have all or part of your toenail removed to stop it growing into the toe.
Cure nail problems
- Keep nails clean and dry to stop bacteria and other infectious organisms from collecting under the tips.
- Wear gloves when washing up and gardening. Lining rubber gloves with cotton ones will stop moisture collecting, which can damage nails.
- If your toenails are thick and difficult to cut, try soaking them first in warm salty water for five to 10 minutes or cut them after a bath.
- Cut toe and finger nails straight across and rounded slightly at the top for maximum strength. Use sharp nail scissors or clippers.
- Always use hand cream after immersing nails in water.
- File nails regularly with an emery board, using the rough side to shorten and the smooth side to shape.
- Work upwards in one direction; sawing back and forth can weaken the nail layers causing them to split.
- Avoid metal nail files as they can make nails flake.
- To strengthen nails, supplement your diet with kelp, which is rich in silica, zinc and B vitamins.