Can Toenails Indicate a Health Problem?

Most people regard their nails as an aesthetic feature of our bodies. But actually, our nails can be a useful indicator of what’s going on inside our bodies. Rather than merely being a canvas for nail polish, fingernails and toenails can flag up chronic diseases and other conditions.

The shape, texture, and color of your natural nails can provide many vital clues as to how the body is functioning on the inside. Just like our hair and skin, our nails are a good reflector of our general health. Strong nails tend to belong to healthy people. Toenails that are ridged, yellow, brittle, pitted or curved are all signs of an underlying issue.

In this guide, we’re going to look at how your toenails indicate health problems. We’ll also examine some of the most common conditions that your toenails can flag up, from thyroid issues to heart problems.

If you’ve noticed a change in your nails recently, it could be that you have an illness or condition that hasn’t yet been diagnosed.

Which Toenail Changes Are Most Significant?

If you’re hoping to use your toenails as an indicator of your general health, here are a few things to monitor:

  • Color. Your toenails should usually be a pale pink color, the same as your fingernails. If you notice any discoloration, for example, if your nails start to have a yellow or black tinge, it might be a sign of something wrong.
  • Texture. Have you noticed that your toenails are starting to thicken? Perhaps your nails are getting brittle, and you’re experiencing breakage. These can all be indicators of an underlying illness.
  • Surface. Your nails should be relatively smooth, but ridges have been known to appear in those who have specific deficiencies or illnesses.
  • Have your nails stopped growing as quickly? You may have a vitamin deficiency or a condition that is inhibiting them.
  • Spots. Marks on the nails can be a sign of infection, deficiency or illness. They can be any color, though the most common are black or white.

If you’re concerned about any changes in your toenails, it’s always worth seeing a doctor to rule out any possible serious illness. Most of the time, changes are the result of infection or deficiency, but in some cases, they can be more problematic.

Common Health Issues That Your Toenails Indicate

Here are some of the most common problems that can be flagged up by issues with your toenails. These can range from reasonably mild (fungal infections or even just age) to the serious (melanoma, kidney disease, and chronic bronchitis).

Toenail Pitting

If you notice tiny pits on the surface of your toenails, it could be related to many conditions and illnesses. The most common of these is psoriasis. Nail psoriasis is slightly different to skin psoriasis. Most people who have psoriasis suffer from both, but 5% of those who suffer from nail psoriasis do not experience the condition of their skin.

You may not have realized that nail psoriasis was a condition in itself. If you have observed small pits, holes or grooves on your toenails, get yourself checked out for possible psoriasis.

Toenail pitting can also be a sign of respiratory disease, malnutrition or alopecia areata. This is an autoimmune disease which can also cause the hair to fall out.

Spoon-Shaped Toenails

If you have an indentation in one of your toenails which is big enough to hold a water droplet, you have what’s known as a spoon-shaped toenail – or koilonychia. This can signal that there’s a problem with your body’s absorption of iron. Either you’re not getting enough and have an iron deficiency (known as anemia), or your body is producing too much iron (hemochromatosis).

Spoon-shaped toenails can also be a sign of lupus, an autoimmune disease. This condition causes the body’s immune system to attack some of the body’s cells, and the nails can be especially affected. In rare cases, spoon-shaped toenails or fingernails can also be a result of Raynaud’s disease, a condition which affects blood flow to the extremities.

Dark Lines Under Toenails

Dark streaks under the toenail can be a sign of hidden melanoma. This is one of the most dangerous forms of skin cancer, because it usually appears on obscure body parts, meaning it isn’t detected until a late stage. If you have this type of melanoma, it will typically manifest as a single dark line which runs vertically along the nail.

These are commonly mistaken for fungal infections (which can be brown), so it’s worth checking it out with a doctor. Hidden melanoma accounts for just 5% of all melanoma diagnoses, so it’s quite rare, but still a possibility.

Toenail Clubbing

This occurs when the tips of the toes become enlarged, and the nail starts to curl downwards, over the tip of your toe. This can be a sign of serious illness, including lung cancer, heart disease or inflammatory bowel syndrome.

When the heart or lungs are compromised in any way, the blood flow to your fingers and toes will increase – but there may also be low oxygen levels in the blood. This causes the fingers and toes to swell, creating that distinct ‘clubbed’ appearance.

Horizontal Ridges

Vertical ridges are relatively normal to see on your fingernails and toenails. They’re often just a simple side effect of the aging process, or perhaps a mild magnesium deficiency. Horizontal ridges, however, are more of a cause for concern.

Horizontal ridges on the toenails are known as Beau’s lines. They can be caused by a trauma or severe illness in your recent history. If you’ve recently had surgery, been in an accident or recovered from a serious illness recently, you may observe these lines on your fingernails and toenails.

However, if you haven’t been in an accident or recovered from illness, the ridges can be a sign of various illnesses. These include diabetes, circulatory disease, and zinc deficiency. If the ridges are slightly discolored, they’re known as Mees’ lines. These can signal even more serious conditions, from malaria and leprosy to carbon monoxide poisoning.

Cracked and Brittle Nails

There are a lot of reasons why you might experience brittle toenails. Sometimes it simply comes down to lifestyle factors. If your hands are exposed to chemicals like cleaning products regularly, it can have an impact on your nails. The same goes for those who like to use nail polish and remover regularly.

Brittle nails are not always a cause for concern. But if they don’t recover when they’re not exposed to certain lifestyle factors, it may be that something else is wrong. Cracking and splitting can be a key sign of thyroid disease, particularly hypothyroidism, which is an underactive thyroid. If your body is not producing enough thyroid hormones, it can manifest in brittle nails that break easily.

Another critical reason for brittle nails that crack or break regularly is a fungal nail infection. Fungal infections are not particularly dangerous, but they can be very unpleasant. The most serious fungal nail infections can cause the toenail to lift from the bed, which can be enormously painful and may even hinder mobility.

Fungal nail infections can be treated – but the treatment process can be lengthy. You’ll need to keep up a strict treatment regimen for months until the infected nail grows out and a healthy one grows in its place.

Toenail Separation

Some illnesses cause the toenail to separate from the nail bed, becoming loose over time. This can be incredibly uncomfortable, especially for those who have to spend all day on their feet.

Thyroid disease and hyperthyroidism can cause loosening of the nails from the nail bed. Hyperthyroidism is an overactive thyroid when your body makes too many thyroid hormones. The excess hormones cause a range of problems, which manifest in the toenails.

Psoriasis has also been known to contribute towards toenail separation. But perhaps the most common reason why your toenail might start to move away from the nail bed is a fungal infection. As the fungus grows beneath the nail, it forces the nail upwards. If left untreated, this can go on to cause a range of other problems, some of which can even affect your ability to walk.

Yellow Toenails

Yellow toenails are a classic sign that you have a fungal nail infection. This discoloration is often accompanied by thick, crumbling nails. This is because the fungus eats away at the nails and weakens them, causing them to become brittle and crumbly before your very eyes.

Fungal nail infections are relatively straightforward to treat, but they require a lot of commitment. Whether you choose a natural fungus remedy such as tea tree oil, or an over-the-counter toenail fungus treatment, you’ll need to ensure you treat the fungus every day for many months.

What does toenail color say about your personal health?

Red Lines

Red lines under the nails are tiny blood clots known as splinter hemorrhages. They might have the appearance of a splinter, hence the nail.

They are associated with a range of different issues, including bacterial endocarditis, which is an infection of the heart’s lining. This can be incredibly serious if not treated, so if you spot red lines or marks under your toenail that resemble splinters, get them checked out.

Bacterial endocarditis is particularly common in those who have a compromised immune system. Cancer patients receiving chemotherapy, diabetes patients and people with HIV are most at risk of developing this condition. Be sure to watch your toenails for this vital clue.

Colors Of Toenails And What It Says About Your Health

We’ve covered yellow toenails and why they can be an indicator of an infection. We’ve also covered a range of abnormalities, including spots, lines and other marks on the toenails. Now, we’re going to examine how different colored nails can flag up causes for concern.

  • Blue toenails – this can be the result of Raynaud’s disease, which we touched on earlier. This is because not enough blood is getting to your extremities, causing a lack of oxygen. Blue nails can also signal septicemia, which is very dangerous and must be treated immediately. Asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and other respiratory conditions may also be the reason for blue toenails.
  • Black toenails – they are quite often caused by trauma to the area. The nail looks black because of the injury underneath the nail. It may also be a sign of bacterial infection, anemia or a B12 deficiency. In some serious cases, black toenails might signal cancer, liver disease or chronic kidney disease.
  • White toenails – strangely enough, white toenails can also be a sign of anemia. If you’re noticing white bands across your nail beds, it can also be a symptom of protein deficiency, which should be addressed.
  • Grey toenails – if your toenails have turned an unpleasant shade of grey, you may be suffering from malnutrition, lung problems or arthritis. Grey nails can also appear in the aftermath of surgery.
  • Green toenails – you might notice your toenails taking on a green tinge if you have an allergy to a chemical, such as one found in cleaning agents or cosmetics. Green toenails can also be a sign of fungal infection or bacterial infection.
  • Yellow toenails – as well as being a sign of fungal infection, you can develop yellow toenails because of a smoking habit. Diabetes and liver conditions can also cause a yellow tinge to develop, which shouldn’t be mistaken for a fungal infection.
  • Purple toenails – if your toenails have gone purple, it’s a sign that you have some circulatory problem that is depriving the area of oxygen.
  • Red fingernails – red is a warning color, and if your fingernails turn red, it’s certainly a sign you should see a doctor. Red fingernails are a potential sign of brain hemorrhage, heart disease, high blood pressure, a stroke and potential carbon monoxide poisoning – all very serious conditions.

How to Take Care of Your Toenails

It’s important to monitor your toenails regularly, to check for any changes in their color, texture or appearance. But you can’t monitor your toenails properly if you’re not taking care of them adequately. Poor toenail care can result in bacterial or fungal infections, which can cause crumbling, yellowing toenails that obscure any other problems.

How will you ever notice a dangerous red streak or horizontal toenail ridges if your nails are crumbling from fungus?

What do toenails say about your health?

Here are some top tips to take care of your toenails and ensure they remain a good barometer for your overall health:

  • Wash your feet every day – and most importantly, dry them properly. Infections thrive in moist, damp spaces. You must wash away bacteria regularly, and ensure the whole foot is dry afterward.
  • Change your socks every day. If you’re going to be visiting the gym, going swimming or taking part in another activity that might cause your feet to sweat, be prepared to change your socks more than once. You may find that antifungal socks are a good option.
  • Keep your toenails neatly trimmed. Long toenails can harbor infection, as well as be rubbing against the inside of your shoes and causing discomfort. If you do have hard nails, you can get some thick toenail clippers.
  • Wear flip-flops or other appropriate shoes when using communal changing areas or showers.
  • Once every week, soak your feet in an electric foot spa with the essential oil of your choice. This will help keep the skin on your feet soft and supple, rather than becoming dry and cracked.
  • Limit your time wearing uncomfortable shoes. Many women wear high heels, and lots of men’s shoes have a pointed toe. These can cause issues ranging from ingrown toenails to bunions and corns.

Take Action to Boost the Health of Your Toenails

As you can see, your toenails can serve as a handy barometer of your general health. Even if you’re not suffering from any other symptoms, a mark or change in the texture of your toenail can flag up a multitude of illnesses.

If you’re concerned about a change in your toenails, you should see a doctor. It could end up being nothing – a simple infection or a vitamin deficiency. These are easily addressed with a cream or tablet. But if there’s something more serious going on, your doctor will be able to diagnose it and help you start the appropriate treatment.

Here are 40 useful tips to improve your toenail health.