12 Nail signs and what they mean for your health

Your nails are one of the first things people look at when they see your hands or feet. It’s important to keep them in good condition, not only for aesthetics but also for health.


The colour, thickness, texture and shape of your nails is a reflection of your health. The symptoms of a disease that show through your nails can be harmless, but there are cases that something much more severe is going on like cancer.


If you have had any nail change recently, then it is important that you go and see a dermatologist so they can assess what the cause might be.


In this article, I’ve included 12 different nail signs and what they could potentially mean.



#1 – Brittle nails

What you can see in the image below are fingernails that have gone through a lot of labour.  These nails are called dystrophic nails. Dystrophic nails don’t all look the same because they are exposed to different environments that wear them down.


They can be chewed back if you are fidgety or anxious, split or cracked from exposing them to force,  or even superficially worn back from ripping off fake nails.

brittle looking nails




#2 – Longitudinal melanonychia

This is characterised by a brown or black pigmented band running from the top of your nail, all the way to the bottom of it. If this band appears on your finger then you could be experiencing a systemic disorder, systemic inflammation, truama, a fungal infection, or the rapid growth of melanocytes. The pigmented band can also be melanoma. I’ve included a couple of pictures because it can show up on your nails in different ways.

The whole nail can be covered in the brown or black pigment.


It can be a small band that is light coloured.


Or it can be a darker band that runs down the finger.



#3 – Discomfort, pain and disfigurement 

Onychomycosis is the term used for this type of nail condition. The pain, discomfort and disfigurement is caused by a fungal infection of the toenails which can affect any part of the nail. This includes the plate, matrix or bed of the nail as you can see in the image below. The pain from this infection can be so debilitating that it can reduce the quality of life and cause occupational limitations.

what the nail unit looks like


Below you can see a severe case of onychomycosis.



#4 – Puss and painful nails (acute)

Paronychia is the term used to describe a nail that has a definite abscess and is swollen. The cause of this infection is most likely caused by the bacteria staphylococci. Have a look at an acute case of paronychia.

what Paronychia looks like



#5 – Puss and painful nails (chronic)

If you have a chronic cases of paronychia, it will show as swelling, tender nail folds, thickened nail plates with discolouration and ridges that are running from left to right of your nail.

Your cuticle and nail folds can separate in this circumstance giving the opportunity for more microorganisms to invade.



#6 – Squamous cell carcinoma

These can be easily missed when you make a visit to your doctor or health care professional because the cancer can be masked by the presence of infections or other misleading conditions.

To know that you have squamous cell carcinoma in the nail bed, lab tests have to be conducted on samples of cells taken from the site of concern.

what a nail with SCC looks like



#7 – Beau lines

Beau’s lines are grooves that run up and down the nail or from left to right. They can be mistaken for ridging of the nails, but are completely different.  It can be caused by issues like psoriasis, nutritional deficiencies, metabolic conditions, high fever, chemotherapy agents, or low blood flow to the fingers.



#8 – Clubbing

If you have clubbed fingers, you will know it.  Clubbing of the fingers results from the increased blood vessel growth.  Clubbing might happen because you may be experiencing cardiovascular issues which cause increased blood flow to your fingers to compensate for poor circultion.

what clubbed nails look like


There’s a simple test that you can do at home right now to see if you have clubbing of the fingers.  This initial assessment is used by health professionals. To keep things simple, have a look at the picture below and copy what they are doing. If you can’t see a window in between your fingers then you have clubbing.



#9 – Spoon-shaped nails

The spoon-shaped nail is known as koilonychia. This sign is clinically recognised as iron deficiency which can be caused by decreased consumption of iron containing foods, gastrointestinal blood loss, worms, or celiac disease.

High altitude, exposure to petroleum-based products, trauma and genetics can also be a cause.

picture of spoon shaped nails



#10 – Parallel lines

Mees lines

Mees lines that run from one side of the nail to the other is associated with heavy metal poisoning.  The heavy metals strongly asociated with this line are arsenic and thallium poisoning.

lines running parallel across the nail



Muehrcke lines

These lines called Muehrcke lines are very similar to Mees lines. The white lines also run parallel and are associated with systemic disease. If you have these lines running accross you fingernail then there is a possibility of pellagra, Hodgkin isease, sickle ccell anemia, renal failure.  These diseases are highly associated with Muehrcke lines, but something less sinister could also be going on. Additionally, if you have Muehrcke lines they will usually appear on all fingers.



#11 – Pincer nail

Pincer nails can be hereditary or they can be a result of other causes like psoriasis, tumours or cysts.  Once the causes are removed then the nail can reverse back to its normal state. You’ll notice that hereditary pincer nails are symmetrical compared to other acquired causes. Have a look below.

Pincer nails that run in the family.

hereditary pincer nails


Compare the image above to this one here where the person has acquired pincer nails from causes other than genetic.

not symmetrical acquired pincer nails



#12 – Splinter haemorrhage

There are two causes for splinter haemorrhages. The first is from injury and the second is bacterial endocarditis which is bacteria on the inside of your heart valves that cause inflammation. It’s important to see the doctor immediately if you have this.

blood lines in the nails



Nutritional support

How you look on the outside is a reflection of what is happening internally. The clinical nail signs you just read about is an indication that you need fix whatever it is that is going wrong internally.


Nutrition can support you back to good health. It will always take longer for you to see noticeable changes in your nails because on average they can take anywhere from 3-6 months to completely grow out. In some cases, it may take years to see significant changes in your nail health.



Eliminate inflammatory foods

The underlying conditions that present with nail symptomology is in part driven by inflammation. Inflammation can be caused by your diet, infections, stress, dysregulation of hormones, and metabolic issues.


Your diet is one factor that has a significant impact on inflammation levels in the body.  So many foods nowadays contain excessive amounts of omega-6 fatty acids.  When there is an overabundance of this fat, it transforms into inflammatory agents.



The diagram below shows the steps that omega 6 takes to get to the proinflammatory agents. “Normal” amounts of inflammation is good because it allows the body to heal but excess inflammation aggravates or triggers conditions.


There are ways to reduce inflammation. You want to avoid deep fried foods, added sugars, trans fats, excessive saturated fats and excessive amounts of omega 6 oils.  You can also eliminate dairy and gluten from your diet for two weeks then reintroduce it to see how you react.  Your headaches might come back or you might notice an existing condition may be aggravated.


Eliminating inflammatory foods is the best thing you can do to get started. The next question is, what foods should you replace them with?



Anti-inflammatory foods and how to strengthen your nails.

The mediterranean diet is full of anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant filled and nutrient dense foods. This diet does contain dairy and wheat so eliminate those foods if you have to.  The rest of the food items include lots vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds, olive oil and some meats.


The vast amount of food that is consumed in the Mediterranean diet means that you will be getting more foods unique to nail health and strength. Your nail is primarily made up of highly compacted keratin. The integrity of your nails heavily relies upon nutrients, amino acids, vitamins and minerals and healthy fats which are all found in the Mediterranean diet.


For healthy nails, you need 17 amino acids that can be acquired from the Mediterranean diet, B vitamins, zinc, calcium, magnesium, boron, silica, vitamin C, vitamin A and omega 3.



Biting your nails

Biting your nails could be a habit that you have grown up with since you were a child or you may resort to it when you are bored, not focused or anxious. Hit “Ctrl-F” and type in paronychia.  It will take you to an image that I put in this post that can be caused by nail biting.


When you chew on your nails you expose them to harmful pathogens yeast, bacteria and other microorganisms which can invade and cause cause swelling, puss, and redness around you nail.


To counter your nail biting you can try keeeping your nails trimmed short, keep busy, put a spicy or sour substance on the end of your fingers (don’t touch your eyes), wrap your fingertips in bandaids, or keep a journal and identifyy what triggers you to strt nail-biting.


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