Have you read, or heard, that a person’s hair and nails continue to grow after a person dies? Well, not everything you read on the Interweb is true (except here of course). What is actually happening is an optical illusion. The skin may retract around them, making the hair and nails prickle up and jut out more prominently. What is true however, is that your hair and nails can be indicators of your overall health.


Healthy hair is directly related to a healthy body and healthy habits. In most instances, the way a person’s hair looks is an overall indicator of their health – but not always. For example, hot dryers or curlers and dying or bleaching products can damage a person’s hair – in some cases permanently.


  • Avoid heat. Blow drying or using a curling iron or straightening iron, can damage the outer layer (cuticle) of your hair. This creates dry and dull hair.
  • Balding. Heredity seems to be playing a role in balding (blame the mother’s side of the family). Male pattern baldness often starts with receding hair at the temples, then on the crown, leaving a horseshoe-shaped ring of hair around the sides of the head. Some medications can slow hair loss.
  • Crash diet avoidance. Your hair needs protein and iron to stay healthy, along with omega-3 fatty acids, zinc and vitamin A, but not too much. Very low-calorie diets are often lacking in sufficient nutrients and can stunt hair growth or leave hair dull and limp.
  • Dandruff. It isn’t contagious. It is thought to be an overgrowth of a fungus although in some cases it could be due to oily skin, stress, obesity, cold, dry weather or having eczema or psoriasis. White dandruff isn’t harmful. If you have greasy yellow flakes instead of the white fluffy stuff, you could have seborrheic dermatitis which is an inflammatory skin condition. Both are treated with antidandruff shampoos.
  • Female hair thinning. Women don’t tend to go bald, but they can have thin hair on the top of the head. Minoxidil 5% applied once daily may help hair growth and prevent thinning. Spironolactone and Flutamide (oral medications) can also be used.
  • Healthy eating. If a person has shiny hair, chances are they are eating healthy. Try salmon and walnuts for omega-3 fatty acids; spinach and carrots for vitamin A; brazil nuts for selenium; and oysters and cashews for zinc.
  • Medications. Some pharmaceutical products cause hair loss. These drugs include anticlotting drugs, cholesterol-lowering drugs, antidepressants, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and drugs for menopause, birth control and antibiotics. If a drug is prescribed, you will need to weigh the potential hair loss with the benefits of the condition that the drug is treating.
  • Patchy hair loss. Sometimes your immune system mistakenly attacks hair follicles, causing hair to fall out -- often suddenly. This can create bald spots. It can be treated with injections, but the trauma of bald spots can be hard to take. This condition (alopecia areata) seems to run in families.
  • Premature graying isn’t necessarily related to premature aging. Gray usually isn’t a sign of poor health, though anemia, thyroid issues, vitamin B-12 deficiency and vitiligo can cause premature graying.
  • Shedding hair. You may see hair in your hairbrush – in some cases a lot of hair. It’s estimated that we shed up to 100 or more hairs a day. This hair is replaced by new hair (from the same follicles) in two to three months. If your body has been shocked due to surgery, vaccinations, giving birth, severe stress or a thyroid problem – this hair loss can occur all at once. In most cases, the new hair starts growing right away.
  • Sun avoidance. Just like your skin, your hair can feel the harmful effects of too much sun. It can turn your hair into a brittle, dry mop that breaks and splits easily – especially those with gray or blonde hair. Wear a hat.
  • Tight buns, ponytails or cornrows. When hair is pulled too tight, it can damage hair follicles and cause hair to break or fall out. Remember that hair follicles are in a state of re-growing – but that stops if you damage the follicle.

One more thing – contrary to CSI and other forensic TV shows, hair clippings are an imperfect way to analyze a person’s health habits or drug use. Hair analysis can detect some poisons like lead or arsenic, but findings can be inconsistent and varied. Everything from air pollution to shampoo may affect test results. The American Medical Association is against hair analysis to determine medical treatment for health issues.


    If a person is in the hospital for a period of time, they are frequently wearing a fingertip pulse oximeter to monitor pulse rate and blood oxygen saturation. If that person is wearing acrylic or silicone gel nails, it can be hard to get a reading and a nurse may ask to remove the nail covering on at least one finger.

    It turns out that the color, texture and shape of a person’s nails can reveal a great deal.

    • Clubbing. Clubbing is when the ends of your fingers swell and the nail becomes curved and rounded. It can sometimes be a sign of liver or kidney disease, so schedule an appointment with your doctor.
    • Dark stripes or a painful growth. If you have black streaks or something growing under your nails, this could be melanoma (cancer). See your doctor immediately.
    • Dry, cracked, or brittle nails. This could be caused by overuse of nail polish remover, frequent dishwashing without gloves, or just from living in a low-humidity environment. If you take a break from nail polish, acrylics and gels and the issue persists, you may want to speak to your doctor about hypothyroidism.
    • Horizontal ridges. These bumps can be the result of trauma (hitting your finger with a hammer) although they could also be from illness if you have the ridges on more than one digit. When your body is working overtime to combat an illness, it saves its energy for the important stuff. See your doctor.
    • Pitting. If your nails are covered with pits or dents, this could be psoriasis. See your doctor.
    • Spoon nails. If nails are very thin and are concave (indented) this is usually a sign of iron deficiency anemia. See your doctor.
    • Vertical ridges. This happens with age, and is normal.
    • White spots. It is folklore that white spots on nails are from a calcium deficiency. They are usually the result of a minor trauma (pinched your finger or something) and are nothing to worry about.

    As you can see, many of the issues related to fingernails can be a symptom of something requiring a doctor’s care. You can now understand that there is more than one reason why a nurse or doctor may want your fingernails “au natural” when in the hospital.


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