Why the Doctor Looks at Your Fingernails
Did you know that certain medical problems can be detected when your health care provider examines your fingernails? Their color, shape, and condition can tell your doctor a lot about your health. If you're in good health, your fingernails tend to be smooth, somewhat curved, and slightly pink in color.
These are some of the changes that may indicate a medical problem:
Color. A bluish tinge to the nails can suggest there's not enough oxygen in the blood. If your nails are bluish, and you're also short of breath and have a cough, these could be signs of lung disease, or possibly a heart problem. Pale nails usually suggest anemia. In severe cases of anemia, the nails may be flat or even concave. It's then up to the doctor to determine the cause of the anemia. Dark lines or spots can suggest a benign nevus (birthmark or mole) to a type of cancer or infection. It is important for a health care professional to evaluate this quickly. Health care providers see white or partially white nails in chronic renal failure, psoriasis, or in certain genetic disorders.
Shape. Fingernails shaped like the back of a teaspoon (doctors call it "clubbing") may indicate several disorders, including chronic lung or heart disease, certain forms of cancer, and long-standing infections.
Splinters. When tiny "splinters," which are actually small hemorrhages, appear in the nails of a person with a heart murmur and low-grade fever, it may indicate an infection of the heart valves called subacute bacterial endocarditis. But remember, that doesn't apply to someone without fever and a heart murmur; in those cases, the "splinters" are of no significance. Occasionally, they're actually real splinters you picked up without knowing it.
What about those little white flecks we've all seen in our nails from time to time? Those are nothing to worry about. They usually disappear gradually.
It's a good idea to look at your nails from time to time. If you see these or other unusual changes, talk to your health care provider.
- Jones, Niya, MD
- Petersen, Sheralee, MPAS, PA-C