Fingernails protect the ends of our fingers. They also serve another unlikely yet useful purpose as a barometer of a person's overall health, which explains why doctors give specific attention to fingernails when conducting a routine physical examination.
A yellow discoloration of fingernails is unsightly and may make people feel anxious or uncomfortable about their appearance. Yellow fingernails can be caused by using nail polish too often or from the tar and nicotine found in cigarettes. But yellow fingernails also might signify potentially serious health problems requiring medical attention.
Yellow fingernails may act as a warning sign for diabetes, kidney, liver or lung disease and iron or zinc deficiencies. Although such internal disorders typically are not the cause of yellow fingernails, seeing a health-care professional is highly recommended if your nails change color suddenly.
Fungal infections are the culprit in about half of the cases involving discolored fingernails. After an initial yellowing of the fingernails more symptoms will appear, including a flaking of the nail and an unpleasant odor. Individuals with a fungal infection should see a physician to obtain prescription medications.
Simple blood tests can generally rule out most causes of yellow fingernails. However, a more detailed diagnostic workup may be required to identify what is known as yellow nail syndrome. In addition to yellowing of the fingernails, symptoms include respiratory tract abnormalities and/or localized fluid retention.
Yellow nail syndrome, which can lead to a slowing of growth and disfigurement of fingernails, was first described in the mid-1960s. It is an uncommon condition that has proven to be difficult to treat, though there is some evidence that vitamin E, zinc and anti-fungal preparations will lead to some improvement.
If a medical problem is not causing yellow fingernails, there are several simple steps that individuals can take to get rid of this discoloration. Smokers should give up the habit, which is always a wise move in terms of their overall health. Women can wear fingernail polish less frequently, which will allow their nails to get the oxygen they need to maintain a natural hue. Soaking fingernails in fresh lemon juice or dissolved denture tablets also will whiten and brighten them.