Ribbed Fingernails: What It Means When You Have Them

They don’t make for the prettiest manicures, but are they more than a cosmetic issue? Here’s what a dermatologist and research have to say.

Fingernails seem like a pretty quiet body part. They grow. You cut them. Maybe paint them. And that’s what matters. But in reality, your nails can give you a glimpse of your overall health. When something is wrong with your body, your nails can begin to change and sometimes develop ridges. Depending on what the ridges in fingernails look like, you may want to schedule a visit to the doctor.

What do vertical nail edges mean?

Lines running from the bottom of the nail to the tip are the most common form of ridges in fingernails, affecting about 20 percent of adults. In the vast majority of cases, it’s just a sign of aging, says Ivy Lee, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Pasadena, California. Fingernails are usually made of keratin, a protein also found in the hair and the outer layer of skin. Just as the skin gets drier and the hair feels rougher, so do the nails with age, because the body has a harder time retaining moisture.

Other nail changes

But if you see other changes in the nails, such as splitting or a color change, you may want to see a doctor, says Dr. Lee. Rarely, ridges in fingernails can be a sign of anemia, rheumatoid arthritis or cardiovascular problems, according to research in the Indian Dermatology Online Journal. For example, a single ridge in the center of the nail can be a sign of a lack of nutrients, such as protein or folic acid. Keep an eye out for these other 11 health secrets your hands are trying to tell you.

What do horizontal nail ridges mean?

Ridges in fingernails that run back and forth are less common and can give you more of a break. Also known as Beau’s lines, they can be a sign of illness or simply a remnant of an old injury, says Dr. Lee. “They arise because there is a temporary stop in nail growth in the proximal nail matrix, where the fingernail is made,” she says. “They’re usually benign and are the result of mechanical trauma: manicures, sticking your finger in the door, etc.”

However, sometimes they indicate a skin condition such as eczema, psoriasis, or chronic paronychia (an infection of the nail folds that causes the skin to become swollen and red), so inspect your skin and fingertips for signs of redness and rash. Your dermatologist may be able to offer a treatment option. While you’re at it, check out these things your nails can reveal about your health.

A symptom of bigger health problems

Ridges in nails aren’t just across the skin — they can be a sign of other systemic problems as well. For example, an over- or under-active thyroid can affect the hormones responsible for nail, skin, and hair growth, resulting in ridged nails in some cases. If all 20 fingernails and toenails develop Beau’s lines at the same time, it could even be an infection such as pneumonia, mumps or syphilis, or even a problem with the heart, liver or kidneys, according to research in the Indian Dermatology Online Journal. Especially if your ridged nails have also become thinner, split, discolored, or misshapen, schedule a visit with your dermatologist to get to the bottom of the problem, Dr. Lee says. In the meantime, read 42 other strange symptoms that could indicate a serious illness.

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