Visit a palm reader, and they’ll appear to glean important info from scrutinizing your hand in search of the life, heart, head, and fate lines. Maybe this crease in the palm indicates luck, and that one reveals you’re likely to find your true love and a fairytale happy ending.
The logically minded know all of this can’t possibly be true—but it’s sure fun to imagine, isn’t it? More likely, the mystic in question is just a keen observer. Noticing the wedding ring on your hand, she might tell you what you want to hear about your spouse, or, spotting the creases around your eyes, she might proclaim you’ve had a life filled with happiness.
But in reality, palm readers might do better by flipping over the hand and taking a look at the nails.
Anything going on inside your body will eventually appear on the outside—and your fingernails are a prime place for these changes to manifest. That’s not to say that one broken nail is cause for concern. It’s big, dramatic changes you want to pay close attention to. Sudden changes on or around the nail beds might be the body’s way of sending you a message that a health issue is lurking below the surface. Between manicures (at home or at the salon), always take a look at your nails for any of the following signs.
What your nails say about your health
To set a baseline, let’s take a second to describe what healthy nails should look like. Most of the nail should be pale pink or match your skin tone, with a lighter half-moon shape near the base (the lunula), and a white rim around the tip of the nail. Of course, everyone is different—some may not have a visible lunula, and the shade of the nail varies from person to person.
Beyond individual variation, the following abnormalities could be the cause of different health conditions. Of course, none of these signs should be taken as definitive proof of these or any other health issue. Check with your doctor before jumping to any conclusions, and for advice on best next steps.
Those mysterious white spots or shapes that occasionally appear on the nail aren’t anything to worry about. They could be brought on by stress or genetics, or they might be the result of injury to the nail bed (like a bruise).
White with a darker rim
Nails that appear pure white with a darker rim at the tip could be a sign of liver disease, such as hepatitis.
Dryness or brittleness
Can’t seem to stop your nails from breaking? They might just be dried out from too much polish—try taking a hiatus on the nail color for a week or two and see if that helps. But persistently brittle nails could also be a sign of a fungal infection, a deficiency of B vitamins or calcium, or even thyroid disease.
Nails taking on a yellow hue? Don’t panic—the most common cause is a fungal infection, which is fairly easy for a doctor to treat with antifungal medication. But yellowing could also indicate a more severe condition like lung disease or diabetes.
Fingernails that turn light blue or gray—and stay that way—could show that the extremities aren’t getting enough oxygen. A doctor will need to take a closer look, but respiratory problems or a blood vessel disorder could be to blame.
Redness or inflammation
If your nail bed (the flesh underneath the middle of the nail) or nail fold (the skin surrounding the base of the nail) looks red and inflamed or feels tender, it could indicate lupus or another connective tissue disorder, or even heart disease.
Paleness or whiteness
Healthy nail beds will look lighter in color than other parts of your hand, but generally match your skin tone. An extra pale or even white-ish color could be a sign of anemia.
Vertical ridges running from the base to the tip of the nail are normal, and often occur as the body ages. Horizontal ridges running parallel to the cuticle and tip, on the other hand, could be a symptom of more serious problems like arsenic poisoning from contaminated groundwater or environmental toxins.
Manicure looking a little uneven? Though some abnormalities in texture are normal, small holes or pits might be indicative of psoriasis or arthritis.
Dark lines underneath
See a doctor right away if you notice dark lines forming beneath the surface of the nail—this might be a sign of melanoma.
Look at your finger from the side. Normal nails will look relatively flat, with only a slight curve as they follow the finger. Clubbed nails, however, form a sharper angle, curving down dramatically to mirror an upside-down spoon, like this. Here’s the good and bad news: clubbing can be a symptom of serious ailments like cancer and lung diseases, but often goes away quickly once a doctor can identify and treat the cause.
Photo credit: Alicia Cho