This change in your fingernails could be a sign of lung cancer

Hands show fingerails
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Developing a new and persistent cough, as well as wheezing or coughing up bloody phlegm are all 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 another possible sign of cancer?

When Jean Williams Taylor posted a photo on Facebook in 2018 that showed her fingernails had grown in a curved, downward angle, a commenter urged her to go see a doctor. She took the advice 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, writing, “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?”

man looks at lung x-ray
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Unfortunately, Taylor would die less than a year after writing her viral post, at the age of 53, but she was widely credited with raising awareness about this cancer symptom.

Medical experts say that lung cancer is, in fact, the most common cause of fingernail clubbing. The nail deformity often occurs in people suffering from heart and lung diseases that reduce the amount of oxygen in the blood. It can be a warning sign of a serious problem, 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, according to Dr. Norman Edelman, senior scientific adviser to the American Lung Association.

“We don’t quite know precisely what causes it,” he said. “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,” Edelman said.

close-up of fingernails
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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 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:

Illustration shows fingernail clubbing
National Institutes of Health/Medline Plus

According to Medical News Today, nail clubbing occurs in 5%-15% of people with lung cancer, though it can develop due to a variety of other conditions, including severe cases of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), pulmonary fibrosis, congenital heart disease, liver disease and some bowel diseases.

There are also benign reasons that could cause nail clubbing: A congenital form runs in some families, for example, and has no medical significance, Edelman said.

Other Signs of Lung Cancer

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

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

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.

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

  • A cough that does not go away or gets worse
  • Coughing up blood or rust-colored 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

Woman coughs
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Because the signs can be so evasive, the American Cancer Society recommends that doctors discuss screenings with people who are high risk. In recent years, the organization adjusted the guidelines surrounding what constitutes “high risk” and now suggest that anyone 50-80 years old be screened yearly if they currently smoke or used to smoke 20 packs a year or more.

In 2018, 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 was some bad news: Just because you stopped smoking years ago doesn’t mean your risk for lung cancer is wiped out.

Smoker holds cigarette in hand
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Five years after quitting, the risk of developing lung cancer in former heavy smokers dropped by 39% compared to current smokers. The risk continued to fall as time went on. Yet, even 25 years after quitting, the lung cancer risk of former heavy smokers remained more than threefold higher compared to those who had never smoked.

Former heavy smokers also need to realize that the risk of lung cancer remains elevated for decades after they smoke their last cigarettes,” said study author Dr. Matthew Freidberg, a professor of medicine at Vanderbilt. That’s why it’s so important to be screened for lung cancer.

What Else Can Our Fingernails Tell Us?

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

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

White spots and Vertical ridges on the fingernails
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The Mayo Clinic offers a list 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. This can be attributed simply to aging but could also indicate 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.

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About the Author
Brittany Anas
Hi, I'm Brittany Anas (pronounced like the spice, anise ... see, that wasn't too embarrassing to say, now was it?) My professional writing career started when I was in elementary school and my grandma paid me $1 for each story I wrote for her. I'm a former newspaper reporter, with more than a decade of experience Hula-hooping at planning meetings and covering just about every beat from higher-education to crime to science for the Boulder Daily Camera and The Denver Post. Now, I'm a freelance writer, specializing in travel, health, food and adventure.

I've contributed to publications including Men's Journal, Forbes, Women's Health, American Way, TripSavvy, Eat This, Not That!, Apartment Therapy, Denver Life Magazine, 5280, Livability, The Denver Post, Simplemost, USA Today Travel Tips, Make it Better, AAA publications, Reader's Digest, Discover Life and more. Visit Scripps News to see more of Brittany's work.

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