Nails consist of layers of a protective fibrous protein called keratin that also occurs in skin and hair. Keratin makes the nails strong, but external trauma or an underlying health condition can cause thin layers of the nail to peel away.
When this occurs, it can leave the nails looking thin. They may also feel sensitive or uncomfortable.
Here, we look at the causes of peeling nails and how to prevent and treat them.
What are the causes?
Mild iron deficiency is often the cause of peeling nails. However, some external causes and underlying health conditions can also produce this symptom.
External causes include:
- washing the hands excessively
- washing dishes without gloves
- peeling nail polish off instead of using remover
- wearing gel or acrylic nails
- using the nails to pick things up or open things
- buffing the nails too much
- exposing the nails to certain chemicals
- spending time in hot or humid places
Nails can take a long time to grow, so the results of external trauma may not become visible until many months later.
Underlying health conditions that may cause peeling or brittle nails include:
- iron-deficiency anemia
- underactive thyroid
- lung disease, which may also cause yellow nails
- kidney disease, which brown discoloration on the nails can also indicate
Changes in the way the nails grow may also happen as a person gets older.
Researchers have suggested that age-related changes in a person’s nails may occur as a result of blood circulation problems and extended exposure to UV rays.
People can become dehydrated if they do not drink enough water or non-caffeinated beverages.
Dehydration may cause a range of symptoms, as well as peeling nails. These can include:
- dry mouth, eyes, and skin
- increased thirst
- infrequent urination
- dark yellow urine
- a headache
- feeling dizzy
An underactive thyroid does not produce enough hormones. As well as brittle nails, an underactive thyroid may cause:
- reduced sweating
- dry skin
- difficulty concentrating
- high blood pressure
- high cholesterol
- decreased appetite
- weight gain
- feeling cold
- feeling tired
In some instances, nail abnormalities may be a sign of lung disease.
According to the American Lung Association, the symptoms of lung disease may include:
- a cough lasting a month or longer
- shortness of breath
- mucus production lasting a month or longer
- coughing up blood
- unexplained chest pain
According to a 2015 article, brown discoloration on the upper half of the nail may indicate kidney disease.
Other symptoms may include:
- reduced appetite
- weight loss
- itchy skin
- frequent need to urinate
- water retention
- trouble sleeping
- shortness of breath
- blood in urine
- muscle cramps
Treating peeling nails at home
The best way to treat peeling nails is:
- eating iron-rich foods or taking iron supplements
- keeping nails trimmed short
- filing nails to a rounded edge so that they are less likely to catch and tear
- keeping nails moisturized
The recommended daily intake of iron is 18 milligrams (mg). Iron-rich foods include:
- legumes, such as peas and beans
- organ meat, such as liver
- red meat
- pumpkin seeds
Research suggests that coconut oil is a safe and effective skin moisturizer. Rubbing coconut oil into nails may help to keep them moisturized.
Treatments for underlying conditions
Although it is rare, underlying health conditions can sometimes cause peeling nails. Below are the treatments for each of these conditions.
The standard treatment for iron deficiency is to eat more iron-rich foods or take iron supplements.
If a person has symptoms of anemia, they should speak to their doctor, who can recommend the best treatment.
People can treat mild dehydration by drinking more water. If they have severe dehydration, they may need to receive intravenous fluids in a hospital.
It is possible to treat an underactive thyroid with a synthetic form of the T4 hormone that a healthy thyroid produces.
There are several treatments available for this condition. The best one will depend on the type of lung disease that a person has.
One type of lung disease is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Treatments for this may include:
- stopping smoking
- oxygen treatment
- non-invasive ventilation
The following tips can help to prevent peeling nails:
- avoiding wearing acrylic or gel nails
- using nail polish remover to take off nail polish
- wearing rubber gloves when washing dishes or cleaning with chemicals
- using the fingers rather than the nails to open things or pick them up
- trimming nails and gently filing them to a rounded shape
- keeping nails moisturized
Takeaway and when to see a doctor
Peeling nails are generally treatable at home, but if the nails are also painful or bleeding, it is best to visit a doctor. People should also seek medical advice if peeling nails accompany other symptoms of more severe conditions.
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