Watch glass nails - causes and treatment

Watch glass nails - causes and treatment

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We call watch glass nails pathologically altered nails on fingers or toes that are reminiscent of the round curved glass of a watch. As a rule, these occur on drumstick fingers, which are so named because the pathological shape of the fingers evokes associations with drumsticks. The end links of the fingers thicken and the nails emerge.

The most important facts

  • Watch glass nails refer to rounded nails.
  • The cause is a lack of blood flow to the fingers, toes and nail beds as a result of a lack of oxygen in the tissue there.
  • The lack of oxygen often results in a bluish discoloration of the nail region.
  • It is not an independent disease, but a symptom of various diseases, the common feature of which is an associated lack of oxygen in the body.
  • The basic diseases affect the lungs, liver, gastrointestinal tract and metabolism.
  • The deformations of the nails can also develop briefly after inhaling poisons.
  • Watch glass nails are a warning sign as they can indicate serious illnesses - sufferers should immediately consult a doctor.
  • This symptom can hardly be prevented because it appears in the context of a primary disease. However, moderate exercise and no smoking are important so as not to aggravate the symptoms.

How do I recognize watch glass nails?

This deformation is easy to recognize: the tissue between the finger bones and the nail matrix increases, the nails bulge both lengthways and crossways, are greatly enlarged and appear rounded. The nails are often bluish due to a lack of oxygen. The deformed nails are not contagious and do not cause pain.

Are watch glass nails dangerous?

Affected people usually suffer from the fact that the deformed nails (and fingers) look unaesthetic - "like an alien from a science fiction film". But it's not just about cosmetics. Watch glass nails are not a disease, rather they are a possible symptom of various diseases that require quick treatment, as sometimes (e.g. lung cancer) they are serious diseases.


The cause of watch glass nails is a chronic lack of oxygen in the tissue. This presumably leads to poor blood circulation in the phalanxes, whereupon additional capillaries form in order to ensure the blood circulation. These additional capillaries lead to thickening of the end limbs on fingers and toes. The blood circulation does not work, so the nail plates cannot develop normally and watch glass nails are formed as a result.

Heart and lungs

Watch glass nails on drumstick fingers most often occur in lung cancer, but also in the expansion of the bronchi, over-inflated alveoli, in pulmonary tuberculosis, and also in cystic fibrosis, a genetic metabolic disorder. Such deformed fingers and nails are only rarely related to heart failure or other heart defects such as cardiac tumors and inflammation of the heart.

Cirrhosis of the liver

Cirrhosis sufferers often also suffer from these pathologically altered fingers and nails. This chronic liver disease is characterized by the fact that healthy liver tissue is replaced by scar and connective tissue. Here, too, the body's oxygen supply breaks down massively.


Diseases in the stomach and intestines can also lead to such deformed nails. These include chronic intestinal disorders Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis as well as tuberculosis in the digestive system. Colon cancer, amoebic dysentery and polyps in the colon are other possible causes.

Cystic fibrosis

This metabolic disorder is also called cystic fibrosis and is congenital. Those affected suffer from very tough saliva, bronchial mucus and secretions from the pancreas. The disease is incurable.

Because cystic fibrosis is not curable, the symptoms can only be reduced. Mucilizing agents that expand the bronchial tubes in combination with inhalations can be helpful. The subsequent infections can be treated with antibiotics. Taking the medication ensures an increased supply of oxygen to the organism, which prevents deformation of the nails.

Although the nails are not always deformed, the unusually tough mucus clogs the finer branches of the bronchi, but also canals of other organs, which consequently do not work properly.

Irritating cough and shortness of breath

Symptoms include dyspnoea, irritable cough, infections of the lungs, digestive problems that manifest themselves in severe diarrhea, fatty liver, reduced fertility and the aforementioned deformations of the fingers and nails as a result of insufficient circulation.

Salty skin and no weight gain

In newborns, salty skin and a slight increase in weight indicate this dangerous disease. The reason for the increased salt deposition on the skin is the fact that the disease interferes with the formation of the chloride ion channels in the cells, which results in a change in the substance of the body fluids. The easiest way to recognize this is through sweat, since it is saltier in those affected than in healthy people, since sodium and chloride accumulate more. Sweating causes the patient to lose an excessive amount of body salt.

Causes of watch glass nails - an overview

So the causes of watch glass nails come in particular

  1. Intestinal diseases such as ulcerative colitis,
  2. Metabolic diseases (especially cystic fibrosis),
  3. a stroke (due to the lack of blood supply to the brain),
  4. Liver diseases (especially cirrhosis of the liver),
  5. Nerve paralysis and nerve damage,
  6. Lung diseases (chronic and acute)
  7. and inhaling poisons such as sulfur dioxide, asbestos or chlorine

in question.

Treat watch glass nails

Because watch glass nails are symptoms of an underlying condition, you should see a doctor to determine this condition. Treatment always means that the doctor takes care of the therapy for the causal disease. Depending on the respective cause and the severity of the basic condition, the deformations on the nails disappear as soon as the oxygen balance regenerates again.

Prevent watch glass nails?

The deformed nails can hardly be prevented because they are part of a major illness. However, slight improvements are possible. Refraining from smoking improves blood circulation and increases the supply of oxygen. Moderate exercise also promotes blood circulation and oxygen absorption. However, you cannot expect “miracles” from these measures.

A warning sign

The deformed nails are not dangerous, but there is “cause for concern” in a “positive sense” as this indicates an early stage of a tumor in the bronchial tubes (and other respiratory organs). Cancer on the respiratory organs means a deficient intake of oxygen.

Other signs of carcinoma include persistent cough, severe weight loss (without restricting food intake) and chronic pain with no apparent cause. The rounded nails (but also splintery nails) could indicate lung cancer. For this reason alone, you should definitely see a doctor if your nails suddenly bulge.

A British vacationer posted photos of her watch-glass nails on Facebook, whereupon her daughter advised her to visit a doctor, which the mother found silly. Nevertheless, she consulted a doctor who, after looking at the nails, ordered a blood test, X-rays, a CT, MRI and PET scan as well as various lung tests and an examination of the heart. After two weeks, the British woman was diagnosed with lung cancer in both lungs. She owes her deformed nails to the fact that the cancer was recognized early on and calls them her lifesaver. (Dr. Utz Anhalt)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.


  • Dölcker, Dagmar: Alternative practitioner examination knowledge: in a nutshell With access to the medical world, Elsevier Health Sciences, 2017
  • Erdmann, Erland: Clinical cardiology: diseases of the heart, circulatory system and vessels close to the heart, Springer-Verlag, 2015
  • Greten, Heiner et al .: Internal Medicine, Thieme Verlag, 2010
  • Rüther, Wolfgang; Lohmann, Christoph H .: Orthopedics and Traumatology, Urban & Fischer, 2014
  • Behr, Jürgen: "Diagnostics and treatment options for idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis", in: Deutsches Ärzteblatt 51-52 / 2013, Deutsches Ärzteblatt

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