You bring a nail up to your mouth for a little nibble. Sure, you know biting your nails isn't the best habit. But at the moment, you've got a bigger concern: Your fingernails seem to be radiating a strange, not-so-nice smell. What gives?
First, don't panic. Considering how many things our fingernails come into contact with each day, the occasional weird smell isn't all that uncommon (and can usually be managed pretty easily). But in some cases, an unpleasant fingernail odor could be a sign that you're dealing with a problem like nail fungus.
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Here's what causes a smell under your fingernails and what you can do about it.
1. You Touched Something Stinky
The edges of your nails are like little dirt traps, especially if you haven't clipped them in a while.
"Oftentimes when a fingernail is long, residual smells and materials can get stuck under there and cause an odor," explains Miami-based board-certified dermatologist Anna Chacon, MD. That's especially true if you didn't wash your hands after touching the funky culprit.
In some cases it could be something pungent that you cooked or ate, such as onions or garlic. Spent time working in the garden without gloves? You could be getting a whiff of dirt. And if you went to the bathroom or changed a diaper and forgot to suds up (or didn't suds up well enough), you could even be smelling, well, poop.
Fix it: Washing your hands and fingernails (including the undersides!) thoroughly after handling a stinky substance is your first defense against nasty odors. To get under the nails, soap up your hands well and then gently scratch your nails against the opposite palm. Even more effective is using a fingernail brush for deep-cleaning under the nails.
If the odor persists because it's on your skin and not your nails, you can try rubbing your hands with a stainless steel object (like a fork, spoon or faucet) or a bar like the Amco Rub-A-Way Bar ($8.20, Amazon.com), Dr. Chacon says. Though studies haven't looked closely at stainless steel's de-smelling powers, it's thought that lingering odors are transferred away from the skin when they bind to the steel's molecules.
And to keep weird nail smells at bay in the future? Trim your nails shorter, Dr. Chacon suggests, or wear gloves while you work.
2. You Just Trimmed Your Nails
Just-snipped nails can sometimes have a pungent odor right after trimming. For that, you can thank stinky sulfur compounds that exist inside the keratin proteins of the nails. Give your nail a trim, and you might smell an odor coming from the freshly cut end, Dr. Chacon says.
Fix it: There's not much you can do to prevent this smell, unfortunately. But it should dissipate quickly after cutting (and if you keep your fingernails away from your nose, you probably won't notice it).
3. You Have Nail Fungus
Onychomycosis, or nail fungus, can cause toenails or fingernails to have a cheesy or foot-like odor that doesn't ease up even after washing your hands, Dr. Chacon explains. The problem typically causes other nail changes too, according to the Mayo Clinic, including:
- Appearing thick, yellow or whitish
- Being brittle or crumbly
- Having a distorted shape
Fix it: Over-the-counter nail antifungal treatments like Opti-Nail 2-in-1 Fungal Nail Repair ($29.99, Walgreens.com) or Foot Cure Nail Fungus Solution ($19.97, Amazon.com) may be enough to help solve the problem, though it can take months to see results. Applying the treatment consistently is key.
If an OTC product isn't doing the trick, you might need a prescription topical or oral antifungal medication, per the Mayo Clinic, so talk to your doctor.
4. You Have a Medical Condition
Certain health problems can cause unusual odors throughout the body, so it's possible to notice the smells on your hands or fingers. Undiagnosed or poorly managed diabetes can trigger a sweet or fruity smell, while liver or kidney disease can potentially cause a bleach-like smell, Dr. Chacon says.
Certain metabolic disorders, like trimethylaminuria, can cause a person to have body odor that smells like rotting fish or garbage, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
These conditions don't typically affect the smell of the fingernails specifically, though. Usually medical problems that cause a strange or unpleasant odor tend to affect the smell of the entire body, not just your fingertips.
Fix it: If it's not just your fingernails that smell sweet, cheesy or just plain bad, call your doctor.
When to See a Doctor About Fingernail Odor
A foul smell on your nails probably isn't cause for concern if it goes away quickly and can be traced back to something you touched or did (like trimming your nails).
But if the odor sticks around even after washing your hands and nails thoroughly, persists in other areas of the body or is accompanied by other symptoms (especially redness, swelling and pus drainage), give your doctor a call. You could have nail fungus or another underlying medical condition that needs to be treated, Dr. Chacon says.
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Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.