Toenails can reveal clues about your health and lifestyle. While brittle toenails are often the result of aging, they could hint at a vitamin deficiency or fungal infection. By zeroing in on what's causing your toenails to weaken, you can address the problem and strengthen your nails.
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Signs of Brittle Toenails
In addition to breaking, splitting, breaking or falling off, brittle toenails may also feel thin and dry, says Nelya Lobkova, DPM, a podiatrist and founder of Step Up Footcare in New York City.
When the nail breaks, a layer of tissue — the nail bed — becomes visible, she explains. "Sometimes brittle nails may also be discolored or disformed," Dr. Lobkova says.
Causes of Brittle Toenails
Brittle nails are something many people deal with as they get older, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. But there could be multiple factors causing brittle nails to worsen or occur earlier in life, experts say.
For example, people who participate in activities such as long-distance running and kickboxing can develop brittle nails, Dr. Lobkova says. "Also, wearing high heels with narrow toe boxes can cause repetitive trauma that leads to brittle nails," she says.
Brittle toenails could also be the result of a vitamin deficiency, specifically a lack of calcium or biotin — both of which contribute to strong, healthy nails, Dr. Lobkova says.
If there is yellowish or greenish discoloration with flaking of the nail bed, there may be an underlying fungal infection that needs to be addressed to heal and strengthen your toenails, she explains. Fungal nail infections don't typically hurt until they are serious, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and they can be caused by different yeasts and molds.
Dryness and cracking of toenails could also be a result of repeatedly washing your feet or not getting enough moisture, says Bruce Pinker, DPM, a podiatrist and surgeon with Progressive Foot Care in White Plains and Nanuet, New York.
Brittle nails may also be a symptom of hypothyroidism, which occurs when your body isn't producing enough thyroid hormones, or Raynaud's syndrome, a circulation disorder, Dr. Pinker explains. Harsh chemicals like those found in nail polish removers may also be to blame for brittle toenails, he says.
Treatments for Brittle Nails
Your doctor can help you understand what's causing your brittle toenails to develop and can then develop a course of treatment appropriate to your situation. But in general and for overall nail health, drinking plenty of water can help to hydrate your toenails, Dr. Pinker says.
Read more: How Much Water Should I Drink Every Day?
If your toenails are chipping and becoming brittle because you're a runner, Dr. Lobkova suggests making sure the running shoes you're wearing have a wide enough toe box for your toes.
"If the cause is vitamin deficiency, the diet needs to be adjusted accordingly or vitamin B and calcium supplements need to be taken," Dr. Lobkova says. Some doctors also recommend a biotin supplement. It is important, she says, to regularly check your blood levels for deficiency if you are on any type of restrictive diet. If you notice changes to the integrity of the nail, she recommends seeing a specialist.
Antifungal topical and oral medications can treat fungal infections that are causing brittle nails, Dr. Lobkova says, adding that there's also a prescription topical nail strengthener that helps support the integrity of the toenail and works well to generally treat brittle nails.
"Toenails grow at a rate of approximately 2 millimeters per month, so it will take at least three months of using the topical strengthener to visibly see changes to the toenail," she says. For elderly people, it may take at least a year for a full toenail to grow out completely, Dr. Pinker says.