Brittle nails are fingernails and toenails that peel and break easily.
Fingernails and toenails are made up of protein layers. The thickness and strength of the nails is inherited. Separation or breaking of the protein layers can occur in a person with brittle nails.
The main cause of brittle nails is extreme dryness of the nail. Some individuals have a genetic predisposition to brittle nails. As people age, their nails become drier and more brittle. Dry air, common with winter's low humidity and use of indoor heat, can cause nails to dry out. Long, hot baths and showers can also make nails dry.
Diseases and conditions that can cause brittle nails include:
Factors that increase a person's risk of brittle nails include:
Repeated injury to the nail tip can also lead to brittle nails.
The signs and symptoms of brittle nails include:
The diagnosis of brittle nails is made when splitting of the nails is seen. Diagnostic tests may be ordered if an underlying condition, such as hypothyroidism, is suspected.
People subject to brittle nails should limit the amount of soap they use and the length of time their hands are exposed to water. Some people may be able to use mild, moisturizing soap on their hands. A few need to limit soap use to the underarms and genitalia.
After patting the hands dry with a towel, the individual should apply a moisturizer to the skin and nails. The two types of moisturizers available over the counter include:
Other measures to avoid brittle nails include the following:
Several vitamins and minerals have been proposed for the prevention of brittle nails, but none have been proven effective in human studies.
Brittle nails are often unsightly but have no significant long-term effects.
Brittle nails are not contagious and pose no risk to others.
Brittle nails are treated the same way they are prevented, following the guidelines for bathing and using moisturizers. Several vitamins and minerals have been proposed for the treatment of brittle nails, but none have been proven effective in human studies.
There are no side effects to treatment, unless an individual is allergic to moisturizers. Those individuals should choose unscented or hypoallergenic moisturizers.
Moisturizer should be applied to the skin and nails on a regular basis as needed. This will help prevent symptoms from returning.
Any new or worsening symptoms should be reported to the healthcare provider.
Author:Lynn West, MD
Editor:Ballenberg, Sally, BS
Reviewer:Barbara Mallari, RN, BSN, PHN