Fingernails: 5 Signs That Point to Bigger Health Problems


Changes in the appearance, strength, and growth pattern of person's fingernails can tell you a great deal about their overall health. Certain nail problems could indicate anything from heart disease to thyroid problems and malnutrition.

This list of nail conditions will help you decide if further medical attention might be necessary:

Nail is Separating from the Nail Bed

Known as onycholysis, this occurs when a fingernail or toenail pulls away from the pink nail bed. This condition is not usually painful, but they may be prone to catching on things, so it is important to trim them carefully. Once the underlying cause is identified and treated, onycholysis will typically resolve in a number of months as the old nail grows out and is replaced/reattached.

What it looks like: Areas of the nail that have lifted away from the bed tend to be abnormally opaque in color and the surface of the nail can be pitted or indented.

Possible causes:

  • Injury (trauma to the nail)
  • Infection
  • Thyroid disease (elevated or decreased activity)
  • Poor circulation
  • Raynaud’s syndrome
  • Drug reactions
  • Psoriasis
  • Connective tissue disoreder (such as lupus)
  • Allergic reactions to medicine or nail products

Yellow Nails

Yellowing of the nails can be caused by a number of causes, some of which can be serious, while others may be due to simple lifestyle choices, such as smoking or frequent application of polish.

What it looks like: Fingernails become discolored and turn yellow. They may thicken and new growth slows. They may also lack a cuticle and detach from the bed.

Possible causes:

  • Respiratory conditions, such as chronic bronchitis, tuberulosis, or sinusitis
  • Swelling due to lymphatic system blockage (lymphedema)
  • Jaundice related to reduced liver function

Spoon Nails

In the case of spoon nails (koilonychia), nails lose their natural convex structure and become extremely thin and brittle.

What it looks like: Soft nails that look scooped out or concave. The depression in the nail is usually is large enough to hold a drop of liquid.

Possible causes:

  • Iron deficiency
  • Anemia
  • Haemochromatosis (excess iron)
  • Plummer-Vinson syndrome (PVS)
  • Raynaud's syndrome
  • Systemic Lupus

Nail Clubbing

Clubbing occurs when soft tissue underneath nail beds increases. This gives fingertips a bulbous appearance and causes a rounded deformity of the nails.

What it looks like: The tips of the fingers become enlarged and nails curve around the fingertips.

Possible causes:

  • Low oxygen levels in the blood, which could point to heart disease
  • Inflammatory Bowel Disease (Crohn's, ulcerative colitis, etc.)
  • Lung disease (cancer, bronchiectasis, cystic fibrosis, abscess, etc.)
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Liver disease
  • Celiac disease
  • Graves disease
  • Endocarditis

Opaque Nails

If a nail is white, but not because it has detached from the bed, you may have a fungal infection. If this affects all nails, this could be a condition known as "Terry's nails," resulting from decreased blood supply.

What it looks like: Nails appear mostly white, but have reddened or dark bands at the tips.

Possible causes:

If your aging loved one has one of these nail problems and it doesn't go away, make an appointment with their doctor to ensure they do not have a more serious underlying condition. Keep in mind that some medications and treatments, such as chemotherapy, may have an effect on your loved one's skin and nails.

It is also important to help your loved one regularly maintain the health of their skin and nails. Encourage them to use proper care products and practices and to eat a nutritious diet. You may even want to take them for a manicure or pedicure from time to time to prevent and keep an eye on any issues.

You May Also Like

Free AgingCare Guides

Get the latest care advice and articles delivered to your inbox!


Yellow nails also can come from smoking, use of nail polish remover or working with yellow/brown tinted products. Why weren't ridges mentioned.
My toenails are so thick that I have to use wire cutters to trim them. But it is fairly common to have thick and yellow toenails. It is caused by a fungus on the nailbed and does not indicate a serious health problem.
What about yellow,thick toenails? My husband has this problem.