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Nail Problems

Factors that can cause unhealthy or unsightly nails include poor hygiene, infections, trauma, underlying health problems, and poor nutritional status.

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Symptoms

Signs of nail damage include fingernails or toenails that are:

  • Brittle and prone to splitting or breaking
  • Ridged
  • Crumbly
  • Pitted
  • Flaked
  • Thickened
  • Discoloured
  • In-grown
  • Painful
  • Spoon-shaped
  • Lifted from the nail BED

The surrounding tissue may also be affected, especially if an infection is present. For example, the presence of itching between the toes, thickening and cracking of the surrounding skin, and nails that are white or yellow in colour may be symptomatic of tinea (athlete’s foot).

Causes

Nail problems may be due to a wide range of different causes, including:

  • Trauma, whether due to an acute injury (e.g. dropping something on your toe), chronic injury (e.g. toes repeatedly butting up against running shoes), or the nails and surrounding tissues being too closely cropped during a manicure or pedicure.
  • Paronychia, an infection of the tissue around the nail, which is often caused by the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus. Paronychia is more likely to occur when the skin around the nail is damaged (for example by nail biting or exposure to irritating chemicals), allowing the infecting organism to enter the body.
  • Tinea, a contagious fungal infection that is often picked up by using communal showers (such as at the gym or pool). It is most likely to develop when the area between the toes is moist, as occurs with excessive perspiration or from not properly drying the area. Tinea and other fungal infections are more likely to affect people who are diabetic, spend long periods of time with the hands immersed in water, bite their nails, or use nail polish and artificial nails.
  • In-grown toenails occur when part of the nail grows into the skin. They may be due to the nails being trimmed too closely, or wearing shoes that constrict the toes. If not treated quickly, infection may develop. In-grown toenails are most likely to affect people with diabetes, as their peripheral circulation and nerve function may be damaged.
  • Skin problems such as eczema and psoriasis.
  • The use of certain medicines (e.g. some antibiotics, chemotherapy drugs and malaria drugs).
  • Certain chronic health problems, such as rheumatoid arthritis, heart disease and lung disease.
  • Cigarette smoking (which can cause discolouration).
  • Hands often being wet for extended periods of time (e.g. washing dishes), especially if detergent or soap is present at the same time.
  • Nutritional deficiency may lead to nails becoming weak, brittle and poorly formed. For example, a pale-coloured nail bed may indicate iron deficiency, and so may nails that are spoon-shaped (curled up at the edges) or flat. Many natural therapists also believe that a wide range of other nutritional deficiencies may be detrimental to nail health.

In addition, as we get older, the texture of our nails tends to change, and they are more likely to become ridged, brittle or discoloured. They also become thicker, and the growth rate tends to decline .

Natural Therapies

  • Nutrients that support nail health include biotin, which may help to strengthen brittle nails, improve splitting and chipping, and increase nail thickness.
  • Taking an iron supplement may assist with the management of dietary iron deficiency. Choose a formula that contains a gentle-to-the-stomach form of iron, such as iron fumarate, which, when used as directed, does not cause nausea or constipation. Other nutrients that may be present include folic acid and vitamin B12.
  • Garlic has traditionally been used to help the body fight infections, and displays antimicrobial activity against a wide range of infectious organisms, including some of those that cause nail infections. It is often taken with echinacea, which supports immune function.

Diet and Lifestyle Suggestions

  • Take good care of your fingernails and toenails, and in particular, pay attention to hygiene.
  • Follow these hygiene practices to help prevent and treat tinea (athlete’s foot):
    • Keep your feet clean and dry.
    • Change your socks or stockings daily, and favour natural fibres such as cotton over synthetics. Where possible expose your feet to the air by wearing open-toed shoes.
    • Wear a pair of thongs or sandals when using communal showers or changing rooms.
    • Prevent the spread of infection by washing your hands after touching any infected area. Avoid sharing shoes, socks, or towels, and take the time to clean the bathroom and shower floor after use.
  • Soaking the affected hand or foot in warm water and antibacterial soap for fifteen minutes several times daily until the infection resolves will help treat other nail infections.
  • Both fungal and bacterial infections may respond to topical applications of tea tree oil, however, note that in some cases it may need to be used for several months before it is effective.
  • Wear protective gloves when immersing your hands in water or when using detergents, soaps, dyes or other chemicals. Gloves are also useful when performing activities where the hands may get injured, such as gardening.
  • Don’t bite your nails, as you’re more likely to injure them. Use a pair of nail clippers instead.
  • Manicures should be gentle. Take care not to trim your nails or cuticles too severely and always remove nail polish and artificial nails carefully.  In fact, many experts recommend that the cuticles should not be pushed back or trimmed at all, as this may increase the risk of infection and damage to the nail bed.  Nail polish should not be applied if an infection or open wound is present.
  • Limit your use of nail polish remover, especially if your nails are weak or brittle. The harsh solvents it contains may dry the nails, making them even more delicate.
  • Use hypoallergenic moisturising hand cream to keep the skin on your hands moist and supple, especially if you are prone to eczema.
  • Make sure your shoes fit well, and that they don’t restrict your feet or make them sweat excessively.
  • If you are diabetic or have poor circulation, see your podiatrist regularly to ensure your feet and nails remain in healthy condition.
  • Stop smoking.

Important Notes

  • See your doctor if your nails suddenly develop horizontal ridges or become discoloured. These may be symptoms of serious health problems.
  • Talk to your doctor if your nail problems are associated with any other symptoms, or if you suspect that your prescribed medicines may be the cause of your nail problems.

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