What these common nail problems could be telling you about your health

Our body often gives us signs if something is off, and our nails are no exception. If your nails don’t look the same as they usually do, here are some indicators that they may be alerting you to a deeper problem.

1. White or Brittle Nails could mean Anemia

If bare nails look brilliant white, you might actually have low red blood cells, aka anemia. “Anemia resulting from low levels of iron can lead to inadequate oxygen in the blood, which causes the skin and tissues to become pale, particularly the tissues under the nails,” said Shilpi Agarwal, M.D., a board-certified family medicine and integrative and holistic medicine physician in Los Angeles, to Shape. Brittle nails are another sign of anemia, according to the Mayo Clinic.  Talk to your doctor if these nail problems are becoming prominent, and try to add iron-rich foods like eggs, spinach, and lentils to your diet.

2. Yellow, Brown, or White Nails Might Be a Fungal Infection

If your nails change color and become thick, yet semi-soft, it could mean you have a fungal infection in the nail bed, the skin under the nail. Eww, I know, but it’s easily preventable. There are various causes for fungal infections, including poor blood circulation or a weakened immune system. Usually, your doctor will prescribe antifungal pills and/or take a fungal culture.

To avoid fungal infections, though, it’s best not to be barefoot in common areas and to make sure you’re going to a sanitary nail salon (and watch when they pull out their tools to make sure they’re clean!). The CDC also recommends you choose a salon that’s licensed by your state’s cosmetology board. Little-known fact: To ease your mind, you can even bring your own nail equipment to the salon. Who knew?!

3. Pale Nails could mean Diabetes or Liver Disease

If your nails look more pale than usual, a visit to the doctor may be in order. You should go annually, anyway, so there’s no harm in asking him or her to take a look at your nails, too. “When diagnosed early, diabetes can often be controlled with dietary changes,” Dr. Agarwal told Shape. Eliminating processed foods can help, as well as eating healthier, like more veggies and fiber. (I don’t think chocolate’s included this time around.)

4. Brittle Nails? Check your Thyroid

Are the tips of your nails more sensitive than usual, cracking at the slightest thing? The thyroid helps our metabolism and energy levels, but brittle and thin nails are a sign it may be off, especially if your nails are separating from the nail beds. Less thyroid production can cause brittle and thin nails, which are early signs of hypothyroidism, according to Livestrong and The Women’s Guide to Thyroid Health by Kathryn R. Simpson. Other signs include pale nails or ridges in the nail beds, slow-growing nails, and the white parts of the nails may get super light or disappear altogether (!). If you have symptoms and are concerned, your doctor can do blood work to check for thyroid disorder.

5. Beef up on Protein if you see White Lines

One of the most common nail problems looks quite harmless: parallel white lines that run horizontally across the nail.The clinical name for them are “Muehrcke lines,” and they usually mean you need more protein in your diet. Luckily, they’re pretty easy to fix with dietary changes. In certain cases, however, they can indicate liver or kidney issues, so see your doctor if extra protein doesn’t solve the problem.

6. Dark Lines Need to be Checked Out At Once

Not a fan of nail polish? You may want to start wearing some… to prevent nail cancer! If you notice a dark line across your nail, it could indicate a malignant melanoma under the nail. “Just like you have moles on your skin, you can have a mole on your nail matrix which is where the nail grows from,” nail specialist Dr. Dana Stern told CBS 2 in New York. “People will sometimes develop an early melanoma and think it’s an injury and they don’t even really realize they’re supposed to go to their dermatologist.”

While it’s good to take breaks from manicures now and then, particularly so your nails can breathe and you can examine them from time to time, keeping them polished is a great preventative measure against melanoma. “Sunlight is unable to penetrate through polish, so any shade other than a clear coat will provide an adequate barrier from the sun,” Dr. Agarwal told Shape.