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What Your Nails Say About Your Health

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By Dr. Kucy Pon, a dermatologist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre

Have you ever wondered if your nails are healthy? If not, you should! Nails are like 20 small snapshots into your overall health, and can actually tell quite a story.

The first step in evaluating your nail health is by having a close look at your nails' overall shape, colour and texture. Have you noticed any changes lately? Pitting, ridges and discolouration can be red flags for other conditions your body is dealing with. As a dermatologist, I often see patients who are suffering from a variety of nail conditions, ranging from mild and painless to severe and painful.

In short, nails are more than just something to accessorize. A recent Canadian Leger Omnibus Research survey found that 80 per cent of people feel that having nice looking toenails is important. So beyond aesthetic reasons, here are some problems to look out for.

Toenail fungus

Toenail fungus is by far the most common nail condition I see and treat. Just like athlete's foot, it's easily transmitted in warm and wet locations like showers, and can cause brittle and thick nails. Approximately 2.4 million Canadians suffer from toenail fungus, infections that can range from a simple nuisance to a significant issue in a person's life. Toenail fungus can be especially severe and prevalent in diabetic patients, as it increases their risk of limb amputation, local skin infections on the feet and even systemic infections.

Toenail fungus is one of those problems that many people find embarrassing and may not seek treatment for, but doing so is definitely recommended. Not only are these infections contagious, but they generally don't go away on their own. There are several treatment options available, including pills and topical medications. Your doctor can recommend the best option for you.

Brittle, peeling nails

Brittle or peeling nails are another common problem and can signify the presence of a thyroid problem. This condition can also be triggered when the nail is exposed to constant moisture, harsh soaps or long-term use of nail polish. If there is no underlying condition to your brittle, peeling nails, treatment can be as simple as airing out your nails for a while and keeping them well-moisturized.

Discoloured nails

So what about nails that take on a strange colour apart from the healthy pink hue they should be? It could be as simple as a bruise or small bleed under the nail, causing a purple or black spot to appear. Yellow nails may signify lung disease or psoriasis, while blue nails can be the result of some medications. As a general rule of thumb, if you look down at your nails and find an unexpected colour, get them checked out by your doctor.

A few other conditions to keep an eye on

  • Nail pitting -- where ice-pick-like dents appear on the nail -- can be a symptom of tissue disorders, alopecia areata or psoriasis.
  • Beau's lines differ slightly from nail pitting, and cause a dented line across the whole nail. Beau's lines can be caused by uncontrolled diabetes or even a lack of zinc in your diet.
  • Puffiness in the skin around the base of the nail can signify lupus or infection.

Because there are many factors to consider, including injury, disease or reaction to medication, it's important to see your doctor to get a proper diagnosis regarding any changes to your nails.

And while we're on the topic, I'll leave you with some interesting nail facts from the Canadian Dermatology Association: Nails grow faster in summer than winter, absorb more water than your skin and won't grow any faster if you eat or apply gelatin. Now you know!

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