Healthy nails, both on fingers and toes, are a soft pink color with a single white crescent called lunula at the bottom of each nail. So, what are the white spots on nails that seem to appear out of nowhere? Medically, the condition involving these white spots is called leukonychia. You may have heard about mineral deficiency being associated with this condition, but there is more to it than that. Infections, underlying medical conditions, and even injury can cause varying kinds of white spots. There are several ways in which you can get rid of them. Let’s delve deeper to understand this condition so that you know what to do about it.
What Are White Spots On Nails And How Do They Look?
White spots on nails or leukonychia partialis is a kind of partial white discoloration of nails. The word leukonychia is derived from two Greek terms, leuko (meaning white) and onyx (meaning nail). Depending on how the white spots appear on your nails, you may have either of these three types of partial leukonychia (1):
If the white spot on your nail appears as a horizontal band running parallel to the lunula (half-moon-shaped base of the nail), you may have leukonychia striata. These are also called Mees lines and generally outgrow with the nail over time.
Longitudinal leukonychia appears as multiple pale white bands at least 1mm thick that run parallel to the base of the nail.
Leukonychia punctata is the most common type of leukonychia and looks like small white dots on the nails. These generally disappear over time. However, as the nail grows, the number and pattern of the spots may change.
The most common cause of white spots on nails is injury or trauma to the matrix (base). Let’s see some other potential reasons why white spots form on nails.
What Are The Major Causes Of White Spots On Nails?
White superficial onychomycosis is a common nail fungus that causes small white spots to appear on your nails. While this is more common for toenails, your fingernails may also get affected (2).
- Damage Or Allergic Reactions Associated With Nail Products
Acrylic or gel-based nail products may damage your nails and lead to these white spots. Additionally, an allergic reaction to nail products like polish, gloss, nail paint remover, or hardener may also cause discoloration and white patches or spots (3).
Some studies suggest that calcium deficiency does not lead to white spots on nails (4). However, the overall nail health does depend on getting adequate minerals like magnesium, zinc, iron, calcium, sodium, and copper (5). A deficiency in these minerals may adversely affect nail plate composition and make it prone to damage. Therefore, even if there is no conclusive evidence on how mineral deficiencies may lead to white spots, they are often addressed during treatment methods (6).
More uncommonly, white spots on nails may be due to underlying conditions like heart disease, psoriasis or eczema, renal failure, and pneumonia. Arsenic poisoning may also be responsible for the white discoloration of nails. Systemic diseases (diseases that affect multiple systems in the body) may also cause white coloration in nails in rare cases (7).
You can manage benign white spots on nails with a few simple home remedies. Learn more about these remedies in the next section.
Home Remedies For White Spots On Nails
- Eat Foods Rich In Minerals
Incorporate foods rich in these minerals into your diet so that your nail plate can be strong and recover from damages from trauma more effectively (8).
- Use Skin-toned Or Colored Nail Polish
Use nail polish to cover up the white spots for a temporary solution. You can apply a layer of good quality nail polish that matches your skin tone for a natural look. You may also experiment with fun colors.
- Avoid Exposure To Allergens
If the white spots on your nails have appeared after a certain nail product usage, you may want to discontinue using it. It may also be helpful to check the ingredients to see if you may be allergic to any component in that product and avoid it going forward.
In most cases, white spots on the nail go away on their own within 6 months, as that is how long it takes for the entire nail plate on your fingers to be replaced (9). However, there may be situations where you may need to seek medical attention.
When Should You Consult A Doctor?
Consult your doctor if you are worried about the white spots on your nail or if you suspect that you have a fungal infection causing the discoloration. Some signs include:
- Well-defined white spots on nails
- White spots that appear to be spreading
- Pitted and flaky spots
- Foul smell from the nails
The doctor will decide on the right course of treatment after diagnosing the reason behind the discoloration.
How To Diagnose This Condition?
There are several ways your doctor can go ahead with the diagnostic procedures. Depending on what they suspect, they may take one or more of the following steps:
- The doctor may prescribe mycology, in which nail clippings are tested for fungal growth.
- For a nail biopsy, the doctor may take a small piece of nail tissue.
- A blood test may be prescribed to identify if there is any underlying systemic disease.
After the results come in, your healthcare provider will determine the treatment you need.
Medical Treatment Options
Depending on the results of diagnostic tests, your doctor will decide on a treatment course. The most common treatment is the prescription of oral and topical antifungal medication. It may take up to 3 months for a fungal infection to go away completely. If the white spots indicate an underlying disease, the doctor may begin treatment for the root issue.
For white spots caused due to injury or trauma, there is no treatment as such, and you need to wait for the spots to outgrow with the nails. You can take certain precautions to lower your chances of getting white spots, as described in the next section.
How To Prevent The Formation Of White Spots On Nails?
While you cannot absolutely control whether you get white spots or not, there are a few things you can do to safeguard your nails, like:
Avoiding contact with irritants and chemicals (Eg: acrylates, formaldehyde, and toluene sulfonamide-formaldehyde resin) as these may cause allergic contact dermatitis, which can affect, along with the surrounding skin, the nail plates and make them prone to dryness, brittleness, and damage (3)
- Avoiding excessive use of nail polish
- Keeping nails short and trimmed
- Using a moisturizer after handwash to prevent dryness
In conclusion, white spots on nails are most commonly caused by injury to the nail or damage from products. The condition itself is called partial leukonychia and, while mostly harmless, may at rare times be indicative of underlying health conditions. You can use nail polish to cosmetically hide white spots while they outgrow along with your nails and disappear. To take care of your nails, eat more mineral-rich foods and avoid exposing your nails to harsh chemicals or allergens. Finally, as white spots may sometimes be due to fungal infections, look out for the signs and seek medical attention if you are concerned.
- White spots on nails or partial leukonychia are of three types— leukonychia striata, longitudinal leukonychia, and leukonychia punctata.
- Damage to the nail bed, fungal infections, systemic diseases, cosmetic products, or mineral deficiencies may cause these white spots to appear.
- Leukonychia tends to resolve on its own in six months but may last longer if underlying medical conditions cause them.
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- Total and Partial Leukonychia in a Single Family With a Review of the Literature
- Fungal Leukonychia and Melanonychia: a Review
- Cosmetically Induced Disorders of the Nail with Update on Contemporary Nail Manicures
- Leukonychia on finger nails as a marker of calcium and/or zinc deficiency
- Nails in nutritional deficiencies
- Idiopathic Acquired Leukonychia Totalis of the Fingernails in a Child Treated Successfully with Zinc and Amino Acid Supplementation
- Nail as a window of systemic diseases
- Nutrition and nail disease
- Understanding the Formidable Nail Barrier: A Review of the Nail Microstructure Composition and Diseases