Knowing Your Nails (Part I)

Knowing Your Nails (Part I)

Nail problems affect people of all ages. Diet is generally not responsible for abnormal nail changes unless the person is suffering from severe malnutrition.

Some nail conditions need professional treatment from either a doctor or a dermatologist, while others respond to simple self-help techniques and minor lifestyle changes. When in doubt, seek medical advice.

Knowing your nails (Part I)
Knowing your nails (Part I)
Nail discoloration

The healthy nail plate is pink, and the nail looks white as it grows off the nail bed. Causes of discolored nails typically include:

  • Melanoma
  • Nail polish
  • Certain infections
  • Hair-coloring agents
  • Injury to the nail bed
  • Nicotine from cigarette smoking
  • Some medications, including antibiotics, anti-malarial medications, and some medications used in chemotherapy
Ridged nails

Ridges running either the length or width of the nail plate can have a number of causes, including:

  • Eczema
  • Fever or illness
  • Age-related changes
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Lichen planus infection
  • Peripheral vascular disease
  • Trauma to the nail matrix
  • Overzealous attention to the cuticles

Fungal infection

Fungal infections, such as tinea, are spread from one person to another and can affect the fingernails or toenails. Without treatment, the nail bed itself can become infected. People with diabetes or with compromised immune systems are at higher risk of fungal infection.

The characteristics of a fungal nail infection depend on the cause, but may include:

  • Lifting the nail plate off the nail bed
  • Thickening of the nail plate
  • Crumbling of the nail plate
  • Discoloration, usually in streaks
  • White, yellow, or green smelly discharge
  • Flaking and pitting of the surface of the nail plate.

Treatment for fungal infection includes:

  • Antifungal preparations are applied topically (directly to the nail) or taken orally (by mouth)
  • Professional trimming, shaping, and care of the toenail by your podiatrist.

Any abnormal changes to your nails should be medically investigated. See your doctor for treatment or a possible referral to a dermatologist. If the cause of your nail problem is not immediately apparent, your doctor may take nail clippings and scrapings from beneath the nail for laboratory analysis. Fingernail infections usually respond faster to treatment than toenail infections.