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Nail problems

Nail problems are common. They can affect your fingernails and toenails. Usually they are not caused by anything serious.

It's normal for nails to:

  • get thicker or break easier (brittle) as you get older
  • be harder, softer or more brittle during pregnancy - but they usually get better in the 6 months after having your baby
  • bruise or change colour, loosen and in time 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 to grow back.

Causes of nail problems

Most damage to toenails and fingernails has a clear cause like:

  • a fungal nail infection
  • an injury
  • biting your fingernails
  • staining your nails, for example, by smoking or putting on a lot of nail varnish
  • not cutting your nails often enough, or cutting them at an angle
  • your hands often being in water or cleaning products

Nail problems can sometimes be a symptom of:

Treatment for nail problems

There are things you can do to help with common toenail and fingernail problems. 


  • wear rubber gloves if your hands are often in water or you use cleaning products a lot

  • clean your nails with a soft nailbrush

  • put hand cream on your fingernails and fingertips often

  • cut your toenails and fingernails often - it may help to cut nails after a shower or bath

  • cut straight across the nail

  • cut injured, loose toenails and fingernails back to where they are still attached - this helps them to grow back the way they should


  • do not ignore fungal infections on your skin, such as athlete's foot

  • do not cut your nails down the sides - cut straight across the top to help you from getting an ingrown toenail

  • do not clean under your nails with sharp objects

  • do not bite or pick your fingernails or the skin around them

  • do not wear shoes that pinch your toes, especially when exercising

How to ease toe pain

Talking to your pharmacist

Talk to a pharmacist if the look of your nail bothers you or it's painful.

Treatment for a fungal nail infection is not needed unless it is painful.

Non-urgent advice: Go to your GP if:

  • if you notice a new black line or a new black spot under your nail
  • you do not know why a fingernail or toenail 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

Non-urgent advice: Go to a podiatrist if:

  • your toenails are too tough to cut or you cannot reach them
  • your ingrown toenail needs treatment

Podiatrists and chiropodists are specialists who treat the foot and toenails.

Your GP may be able to refer you for podiatry or chiropody. You can also pay privately to go to a podiatrist or chiropodist.

Search for a podiatrist -

Symptoms of nail problems

Check your symptoms below to find out what type of nail problem you may have.

Loose, brittle or damaged nails

Nails that are falling off or loose

It's normal for a toenail to come loose and fall off after an injury to the toe.

Another common cause of a loose nail is cleaning underneath them with a sharp object. Do not clean your nails with anything other than a soft nailbrush.

Sometimes a loose nail may be a sign of:

  • a fungal nail infection
  • psoriasis of the nail
  • warts that cluster around the nail
  • an overactive thyroid
  • a problem with the connective tissue fibres in the body that support the organs and body tissues
  • poor circulation
  • an allergic reaction nail cosmetics

Cut back your loose nail to where it has detached. This will allow the nail to reattach as it grows.

Brittle or crumbly nails

Brittle nails can be a sign of getting older.

Other causes include:

  • a fungal nail infection - this is often the cause of crumbly toenails
  • your hands getting wet as part of the work you do
  • using chemicals such as detergents a lot
  • putting on nail polish over a long time
  • a skin condition called lichen planus
  • when the thyroid gland either does not produce enough hormones or produces too many
  • nail psoriasis
  • reactive arthritis

Wearing gloves will help protect your nails while doing work where your hands are in water.

Putting moisturising cream on your fingers and nails will also help protect them.

You can treat a fungal nail infection with antifungal tablets.

Talk to your pharmacist or GP.

Problems with the skin around your nail

Ingrown toenail

An ingrown toenail develops when the sides of your toenail grow into the surrounding skin. The nail curls and pierces your skin. Your skin becomes red, swollen and tender.

You usually get an ingrown toenail on your big toe. But you can get them on any toe.

Causes and treatment for ingrown toenails

Painful, red and swollen skin around the nail (paronychia)

Paronychia is when your nail fold is inflamed. This is the skin and soft tissue around the nail. If it lasts for more than 6 weeks, it's known as chronic paronychia.

Go to your GP if it is very bad or oozing.

Acute paronychia

Acute infective paronychia usually starts after a minor injury to your nail fold. For example, nail-biting, picking or manicures.

You will see red, warm, tender and swollen skin. After a while, pus can form around your nail. This may lift your nail.

Go to your GP for treatment.

Chronic paronychia

Chronic paronychia often affects people who have their hands in water for a long time, or come into contact with chemicals. For example, cleaners, bartenders, canteen staff or fishmongers.

It may start in the skin around 1 nail (nail fold) but can affect several fingers. Your nail folds will be swollen. They may be red and sore from time to time, often after they have been in water.

Your nail plate becomes thickened and ridged as it grows. It may become yellow or green and brittle.

Wearing gloves will help protect your nails while doing work where your hands are in water.

Go to your GP if the condition is very bad.

Nails that change shape and thickness

Thickened, overgrown nails

If you have overgrown or thickened nails you may have a fungal nail infection. This can also cause them to change colour and become crumbly.

Other causes of thickened or overgrown nails are:

  • psoriasis
  • long-term pressure from shoes that are either too small or too narrow over the toes
  • reactive arthritis
Severely overgrown horn-like nails

If your toenails become so overgrown and thickened that they are like claws you may have onychogryphosis ("ram's horn nails"). Your nails may be hard to cut with nail clippers.

It can happen in older people. It can be from long-term pressure on your nails.

Regular chiropody will help.

Spoon-shaped nails (koilonychia)
finger with finger nail that is curved inwards like a spoon
Spoon-shaped nail

If your fingernails curve inwards like spoons (koilonychia), you may have:

Dents in your nails
Finger with small dents in the finger nail
Nails with dents in them

Small dents or pits in your nails can be a sign of:

Deep lines across fingernails (Beau's lines)
Three fingers with grooves in the finger nails
Beau's lines

Deep horizontal lines or grooves that go from left to right across the nail are known as Beau's lines.

Illness, injury or cold temperatures can make your nails stop growing for a while. Nail grooves form at the base of the nails.

You are likely to notice the grooves a few months later. When your nails grow the grooves move up your nails and you can see them.

Curving fingernails (clubbing)
four fingers with fingernails that are curved over fingertips
Curving fingernails (clubbing)

Fingernails curving over rounded fingertips is called clubbing. It can run in families and be completely harmless.

If it happens suddenly, it may be a sign of 1 of many possible medical problems.

Go to your GP if this happens.

Nails that change colour

Yellow nails

You can get yellow nails from putting on nail varnish often.

But the most common causes of a yellow nail are fungal nail infections or nail psoriasis.

Other causes include:

  • lymphoedema
  • long-term damage to your airways caused by bronchiectasis
  • some medicines, such as mepacrine or carotene
  • chronic paronychia - infection of the nail fold
White nails

If most of the nail has turned white and has not become detached from the nail bed, it could be the sign of two things:

White nails with reddened or dark tips (Terry's nails)

Terry's nails are usually white with reddened or dark tips and can be a sign of a wide range of medical conditions, including:

  • liver cirrhosis (scarring and damage to the liver), about 8 in 10 people with cirrhosis have Terry's nails
  • liver, kidney or heart failure
  • diabetes
  • chemotherapy
  • an overactive thyroid
  • malnutrition
  • iron-deficiency anaemia
White lines running across nails

White spots or streaks are normal and nothing to worry about. White lines can come up if you have been sick and if growth has been disrupted.

Parallel white lines that extend all the way across the nails and are not grooved are known as Muehrcke's lines. They are a sign of low levels of protein in the blood.

They can happen as a result of liver disease or malnutrition.

Green-black nails

Green-black nails can be caused by overgrowth of bacteria called pseudomonas, especially under loose nails.

It can be treated by putting antibiotic eye drops underneath the nails or soaking the affected nails in an antiseptic solution or vinegar.

Brown nails

Brown nails can sometimes be caused by:

  • thyroid disease
  • pregnancy 
  • malnutrition 
  • using nail varnish often
Red or yellow drop or oil drop under the nail

If it looks like you have a drop of oil under your nail or a drop that is the colour of salmon, you may have psoriasis of the nail.

Half white, half brown nail

Fingernails that are half white and half brown (brown near the tips) can be a sign of kidney failure, where the kidneys stop working properly.

Up to 4 in 10 people with kidney failure have "half-and-half" fingernails.

Half white, half brown fingernails sometimes happen in people living with AIDS or who have had chemotherapy.

Dark stripes running down the nail (melanonychia)

Dark stripes running down the nails is called linear melanonychia. It is common in black people age 20 and over. In most cases it's normal.

Dark stripes in 1 nail only

Do not ignore dark stripes in 1 nail only. This is because it can sometimes be a type of skin cancer (subungual melanoma).

Go to your GP so they can check your dark stripes.

Subungual melanoma affects the nail bed. It usually only affects 1 nail. It will also cause the stripe to change in appearance.

For example, it may become wider or darker over time. The skin around the nail (the nail fold) might also change colour.

Red or brown little streaks under the nails

If you have little red or brown streaks underneath your nails, it's likely they're splinter haemorrhages. These are lines of blood caused by tiny damaged blood vessels.

A few splinters under 1 nail are nothing to worry about.

Go to your GP if you have these under many nails. This may be a sign of other health problems.

Grey nails

Grey nails can sometimes be caused by medicines, for example, antimalarials or minocycline.

Page last reviewed: 14 April 2023
Next review due: 14 April 2026

This project has received funding from the Government of Ireland’s Sláintecare Integration Fund 2019 under Grant Agreement Number 123.