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Nail problems

Nail problems aren't usually caused by anything serious. Common nail problems include brittle or loose nails. Read about what you can do yourself to help manage nail problems

Nail problems aren't usually caused by anything serious. Common nail problems include brittle, loose nails that may change colour or shape.

Your nails may change over time

It's normal for nails to:

  • become thicker or break more easily (brittle) as you get older
  • become harder, softer or more brittle during pregnancy. They should be healthier within 6 months of having a baby
  • change colour, become loose and eventually fall off after an injury

Fingernails that fall off after an injury should grow back within 6 months. Toenails can take up to 18 months.

Things you can do yourself

There are some things you can do to help with common nail problems.

Do:

  • wear rubber gloves if your hands are often in water or you regularly use cleaning products
  • clean your nails with a soft nailbrush
  • regularly apply hand cream to your nails and fingertips
  • regularly trim your nails – it may help to cut nails after a shower or bath
  • cut injured, loose nails back to where they are still attached – this helps them to grow back normally

Don't:

  • cut your nails down the edges – trim straight across the top to help avoid an ingrown toenail
  • clean under your nails with sharp objects
  • wear shoes that pinch your toes, especially when exercising
  • bite or pick your nails or the skin around them
  • ignore fungal infections on your skin – such as athlete's foot

See a GP if:

  • you don't know why a nail has changed shape, changed colour or fallen off
  • the skin around your nails has become sore, red, swollen and warm (paronychia). This can be a sign of an infection or ingrown toenail

See a podiatrist if:

  • your nails are too tough to cut or you can't reach them

Some GPs may be able to refer you for podiatry. You can also pay to see a podiatrist privately. Podiatrists are specialist doctors who treat the foot and ankle.

Causes of nail problems

Most nail problems are caused by:

  • injuries or biting your nails
  • staining your nails – for example, by smoking or applying a lot of nail varnish
  • not regularly trimming your nails, or cutting them at an angle
  • your hands often being in water or cleaning products
  • a fungal nail infection

Nail problems can sometimes be a symptom of a more serious or long-term condition, such as:

  • nail psoriasis
  • iron deficiency anaemia
  • an underactive thyroid or overactive thyroid
  • diabetes
  • heart, lung or liver disease

But don't self-diagnose, talk to a GP if you're worried.

Some medicines can also cause nail problems. Check the side effects of any medicine you're taking.

Pictures of nails that have changed shape

Nail disorder
Spoon-shaped nails that curve inwards (koilonychia) can be a sign of iron-deficiency anaemia
Psoriasis of the fingernail
Small dents or pits in your nails can be a sign of nail psoriasis, eczema or alopecia
Beau's lines occurring on nail
Deep lines or grooves across your fingernails (Beau's lines). These may happen when you're ill but should grow out
Clubbed fingers
Fingernails curving over rounded fingertips (clubbing) can be a sign of many serious, long-term conditions

Content supplied by the NHS and adapted for Ireland by the HSE.

Page last reviewed: 29/01/2019
Next review due: 29/01/2022