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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, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD).

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 suggests there's not enough oxygen in the blood. If your nails are bluish, and you're also short of breath and have a cough, you may have heart failure or chronic lung disease. Without these other symptoms, blue nails could mean you have been exposed to certain toxic chemicals that poison red blood cells. 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.

  • 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, show up 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 which case, these "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.