Disease & Illness

This Change In Your Fingernails Could Be A Sign Of Lung Cancer

Here's what you need to know.

Developing a new and persistent cough, as well as wheezing or coughing up bloody phlegm are all significant symptoms that could signal problems with your lung health and potentially be early signs of lung cancer. But, did you know that a particular change in fingernail growth could also be a serious SOS from your lungs and a possible sign of cancer?

Recently, Jean Williams Taylor, who is from England, posted a photo on Facebook that showed her fingernails had grown in a curved, downward angle. She said she was urged to see a doctor after the post, and following a series of tests, X-rays, scans and a biopsy, Taylor said she was was diagnosed with cancer in both lungs. In an effort to raise awareness, she posted about her diagnosis on Facebook, saying: “When your nails curve, its (sic) often linked to heart and lung disease and its official term is ‘clubbing.’ I had no idea … Did you?”

Here’s her full post and a photo of her own nail:

Medical experts explain that lung cancer is, in fact, the most common cause of fingernail clubbing. The nail deformity often occurs in heart and lung diseases that reduce the amount of oxygen in the blood. It can be a serious warning sign of lung cancer, doctors say.

Here’s what else you should know about clubbing, and how your fingernails can provide a window into your health.

What Is Nail Clubbing?

Clubbing is a curving of the nail and a softening of the nail bed, explains Dr. Norman Edelman, senior scientific adviser to the American Lung Association.

“We don’t quite know precisely what causes it,” he says. “It tends to be associated with low oxygen in the blood.”

Clubbing, he said, could also be caused by shunting of venous blood within the lungs.

“We suspect that these conditions release a substance in the blood, which dilates certain blood vessels,” he explains.

When the nail bed softens during the clubbing process, it can seem as though nails are floating rather than being firmly attached. The nails then form a sharper angle. The last part of the finger may appear large or bulging, and it could potentially be warm and red, according to the National Institutes of Health. When nails are clubbed, they grow downward, and they look like the round part of an upside-down spoon.

Here is an illustration from Medline Plus, which is a resource website from the National Institutes of Health, that displays clubbed fingernails:

Photo courtesy of the National Institutes of Health

Nail clubbing can occur in a variety of lung and other disease, Edelman says, including severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (or COPD), pulmonary fibrosis, congenital heart disease and some bowel diseases.

There is a benign reason that could cause nail clubbing: A congenital form runs in some families and has no medical significance, Edelman says.

What Are Some Other Signs Of Lung Cancer?

In most cases, signs of lung cancer occur late in the course of the disease, Edelman says.

“That’s why CAT scan screening is so important,” he says.

Some people with early lung cancer do have symptoms, so medical professionals say you should see a doctor when you first notice symptoms, because cancer might be diagnosed at an earlier stage, when treatment is more effective.

smoking photo
Getty Images | Matt Cardy

According to the American Lung Association, some common symptoms or early lung cancer are:

  • A cough that does not go away or gets worse
  • Coughing up blood or rust-colored sputum (spit or phlegm)
  • Chest pain that is often worse with deep breathing, coughing or laughing
  • Hoarseness
  • Weight loss and loss of appetite
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling tired or weak
  • Infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia that don’t go away or keep coming back
  • New onset of wheezing

Because the signs can be so evasive, the American Cancer Society recommends that doctors should discuss screening with people who are high risk. That includes patients who are age 55 to 74 and have a smoking history equivalent to a pack a day for 30 years, and haven’t quit more than 15 years ago.

In May, scientists at Vanderbilt University Medical Center published a study that showed risk of lung cancer drops substantially within five years of quitting smoking. However, there’s some bad news: Just because you stopped smoking years ago doesn’t mean your risk for lung cancer is wiped out.

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The conclusion? The importance of quitting smoking is certainly important, says study author Dr. Matthew Freidberg, a professor of medicine at Vanderbilt.

“Former heavy smokers also need to realize that the risk of lung cancer remains elevated for decades after they smoke their last cigarettes,” he says, adding that’s why it’s so important to be screened for lung cancer.

What Else Can Our Fingernails Tell Us About Health?

Curious what else your nail growth can tell you about your health? Quite a lot, actually.

For example, white spots on nails can be due to vitamin deficiencies or signal drug use.

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The Mayo Clinic, which is a nonprofit academic medical center based in Rochester, Minn., has put together a slideshow of nail problems that shouldn’t be ignored.

“Spoon nails” with depressions in the center could be a sign of iron deficiencies or hemochromatosis, a liver condition in which your body is absorbing too much iron from the foods you eat. This nail deformity could also be a sign of heart disease or hypothyroidism.

When nails appear white except for a narrow pink band at the tip, it’s known as Terry’s nails, according to the Mayo Clinic, and that can be attributed simply to aging. In other cases, it could mean liver disease, kidney failure, diabetes or congestive heart failure.

The takeaway here? Changes in your fingernails shouldn’t be overlooked and are certainly worth discussing with your healthcare provider.