Preventive maintenance: It’s in your hands

by Karen Bowen

When you glance down at your hands on the wheel, do you ever pay attention to your fingernails? Take a good look; your fingernails are often a window to your health. Have they changed recently? Although some changes are natural, others offer a warning of health concerns, especially changes in your nail color or growth patterns.

Your nails, a part of your skin, consist of protein layers (keratin) which grow from under your cuticle beneath the base of the nail. As new cells develop, older cells harden, become compacted and get pushed toward your fingertips.

Perfect nails are smooth, with no grooves, ridges, spots or discoloration, but healthy nails can also develop harmless anomalies, including vertical ridges, which run from the tip of the nail to the cuticle and often become more noticeable as you age. White spots or lines of bruising may also appear because of an injury, but these will grow out as your nail grows.

Skin disorders can affect the appearance of your nails, causing dimpling, indentations, pitting or splitting. These changes may signal: psoriasis – a common skin condition that causes skin cells to build up quickly; lichen planus – an inflammatory skin condition; or dermatitis – inflammation of the derma skin layer.

Other mild health concerns may temporarily trigger nail changes. Take stress, for instance. Your nails may temporarily stop growing if you have a serious injury or infection, a severe illness or a high fever, allowing your body to focus energy towards high-priority healing rather than low-priority nail growth.

Later, when the stressor is removed and your nails begin growing again, horizontal lines (Beau’s lines) may appear across your nails at the point where the growth temporarily stopped. These lines are not worrisome and will eventually grow out.

On the other hand, some nail changes may signal more serious underlying medical problems that could require treatment.

If your nails change color, especially if they begin turning red or yellow, or if colored dots, streaks or stripes appear, you could have a nail fungus or skin cancer. Yellow nails can also be a sign of chronic bronchitis or other respiratory conditions. Nails beginning to turn white or yellow at the cuticle or the tips may indicate kidney problems or liver failure.

If your nails begin to curve much more than usual (clubbing of the nail), you probably have low oxygen levels in your blood, which may be caused by a lung, heart, or inflammatory bowel disease, or liver issues.

Spoon nails (koilonychia) – when your nails grow in a ski jump shape – can be a sign of iron deficiency anemia. Nails that separate from the surrounding skin or nails with swelling or pain around them can signal deeper medical issues requiring treatment. These are just a few of the most common conditions that can affect your nails. Since there are hundreds of medical disorders, diseases, and conditions that can also cause nail changes, talk to your doctor or dermatologist if you are concerned about abnormal changes in your nails.

To ensure any nail changes tied to serious health issues are noticeable, keep your fingernails in top shape. Regularly practice good nail hygiene. Keep them trimmed, using sharp manicure scissors or clippers. File rough edges to stop nails from tearing.

Keep them dry and clean to prevent bacteria from growing underneath. Avoid long and repeated contact with water to prevent splitting – wear cotton-lined rubber gloves while washing your rig or using harsh chemicals. Use hand moisturizer and spread it over your fingernails and cuticles.

Don’t bite or pick your nails at the cuticles so you don’t damage the nail bed. Even minor cuts beside your fingernail can allow bacteria or fungi to enter your body (and sometimes lead to blood poisoning). Avoid pulling off hangnails – clip them off instead.

Remember that your fingernails can protect more than your fingertips; monitor their condition. Your life may be in your hands.

Karen Bowen is a professional health and nutrition consultant, and she can be reached at

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