What Are Nail Ridges: Are They A Sign Of A Health Problem?

Ask Healthy Living: What Do My Nail Ridges Mean?

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Why do my fingernails have ridges lengthwise on them?

We're glad you specified the direction of your ridges -- it turns out that matters. Vertical lines on one's nails, like those the writer seems to have, are a common phenomenon that often get more pronounced with age.

"There are many reasons for ridged nails but the most common is aging," says Dr. Phoebe Rich, M.D., FAAD, clinical adjunct professor of dermatology at Oregon Health Science University. "As we age the nail matrix becomes atrophied in areas resulting in longitudinal ridging of nails. I tell people they are like wrinkles in the nails."

Jessica Krant, M.D., a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at SUNY Downstate Medical Center, agrees: "Lengthwise ridges, if they are evenly spaced over the whole nail, are common and harmless, and generally associated with normal aging and the nail's increasing inability to retain moisture," she says. "Sometimes it can be a sign of lack of certain vitamins or poor nutrition, but this is rare."

Vertical ridges can also be caused by nail injury and certain diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, according to Rich. If, instead of a series of ridges, there's a single vertical streak, cautions Krant, this could be a sign of a tumor growing at the root of the nail. Another caveat: If the ridges have appeared and grown more pronounced very quickly or over a short period of time, they could be a sign of a very rare condition called lichen planus, which often also causes skin rash.

While some people might not like the way they look, it's better not to buff off the ridges, Rich says. Since the ridge is the thinnest spot on the nail, it can split and buffing only exacerbates that. Instead, Krant suggests moisturizing the nail throughout the day with a thick lotion or petroleum jelly, paying close attention to the cuticle ("The key to the health of the nail," she says).

Meanwhile, horizontal ridges are more likely to signal a problem. One condition, Beau's lines, is characterized by indentations across the nail bed that are a sign of disrupted growth due to illness. As the Mayo Clinic explains:

Conditions associated with Beau's lines include uncontrolled diabetes and peripheral vascular disease, as well as illnesses associated with a high fever, such as scarlet fever, measles, mumps and pneumonia. Beau's lines can also be a sign of zinc deficiency.

While a single instance of a horizontal ridge could just be a sign of a time the body was fighting off illness, recurrent horizontal ridges might point to a chronic disease.

"If nail defects keep occurring as the nail forms, it's a sign of an ongoing problem with creating the nail which can be a sign of bigger problems like GI, kidney, lung, or liver disease," says Krant. "These can also cause discoloration of nails and make nails look whiter, yellower, or bluer than normal due to discoloration of the underlying nail bed."

Unsure of what your nail ridges mean? Ask your dermatologist -- and always have them check your nails during your annual skin check up.

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