Nailing the problem
Nails have been part of our normal structure for millions of years. Certainly they have been with us for 47 million years, according to scientists who examined the recently found fossilized remains of a young female “common link” ancestor and found she had nails instead of claws.
Nails are useful, they help protect the ends of our fingers and of course they can look very nice indeed. Uncared for nails, or chipped or ridged nails however can look very ugly and affect one’s overall appearance. Nail infections can also cause all sorts of problems. So all in all it makes sense to take the best care we can of our nails.
Our nails are actually quite complex structures and are made up of a number of components. These include the matrix, which is not visible but is in fact the root of the nail. It is the matrix that produces keratin cells that make up the nail plate.
This nail plate acts as a protective shield for delicate tissues that lie underneath on the nail bed and the proximinal and lateral nail folds (part of our skin to protect the matrix); there is also an eponychium and ptygerium (cuticle), and the lunula, often called the moon which is the front end of the matrix.
With all those different sections, no wonder they need a bit of looking after! Nails can also change with age, losing their natural sheen and strength and becoming brittle, dull, yellowy and ridged.
Two of the most important aspects affecting the health of our nails is our general health and our diet. Certain illnesses can really affect our nails – anaemia can make a nail grow upward into a spoon shape; infections can also cause ridges in nails. Kidney diseases, liver and diabetes can all affect nail growth. Vitamin deficiencies can also cause real problems; lack of vitamin A and calcium can cause a nail to become dry and brittle, so that they chip and break easy. Lack of vitamin B can cause horizontal and vertical ridges. Lack of B12 can results in nails turning dark, dry and curving at the end.
So ensuring you have a good balanced diet rich in fresh fruits and raw vegetables is very important for your nails. Changing your diet to help specific problems can bring enormous benefits to your nails – if you suffer from hangnails (detached excess skin around the nail) then a diet rich in protein, vitamin C and folic acid can help. Foods rich in vitamin A such as apricots, broccoli and carrots plus food with calcium such as milk and cheese are very useful in helping to grow healthy nails. It is important to keep your nails hydrated, so drinking plenty of water is important.
One nail problem that is not well recognized is melanoma. Subungal (under the nail) melanoma can develop in fingernails and toenails, perhaps as a brown line or a streaky discolouration and can be mistaken for a bruise. Subungal melanoma only accounts for around 2 per cent of all melanomas in Caucasian races but goes up to over 30 per cent in people with darker coloured skin and appears most often in people over 50 years of age. So it is worth being aware of this condition and of course if you feel you have a problem, see your doctor without delay.
Fungal infections are more common; they make up around half of all nail disorders and as the infection is usually under the nail plate or in the nail bed, they can be difficult to treat. Different infections can cause different problems such as thickening nails, white patches on the surface of the nail, or swelling of the nail cuticle. Toenails are more susceptible to fungal infections than finger nails because they are usually kept in a warm, moist environment, although candida or yeast infections are more common in fingernails, especially if your hands are often wet or immersed in water.
There are a number of treatments for fungal infections including anti-fungal nail polishes and medication, but improvements may be slow because nails grow so slowly – up to nine months for fingernails and 18 months for toenails to grow completely.
A hangnail is a more common nail problem that occurs when excess skin exists around the nail and then becomes partially detached. The main cause is dryness in the cuticle, but hangnails can be very annoying and also quite painful. There are lots of products available to help prevent hangnails including specialist cuticle oils. Some people use petroleum jelly or hand creams to rub into the cuticles to keep them well moisturized.
Finally of course keeping nails clean and clipped short is very important to nail health. When you clean under the nail, take care not to poke too far down which can damage the underlying layers. Always file a nail in one direction only, and don’t cut your nails immediately after a bath or shower as they will be soft and could break easily.
The best way, for both men and women, is to invest in a professional manicure and pedicure. Even the occasional visit can do a great deal for nail health and appearance, and you will have the opportunity of learning some inside tips on how to keep your nails in the best shape possible.
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