IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Yellow nails, itchy toes, back pain: What you need to know about your feet

Did you know April was National Foot Health Awareness Month?
/ Source: TODAY

Feet. They’re a part of the body we don’t pay too much attention to, if at all. That is, unless something looks off or we're in pain.

April is National Foot Health Awareness Month, so it's a good time to make sure you know what common problems are, as well as when to see a doctor.

Here are a few things to be aware of:

1. Yellow or brown discoloration

“You generally want the toes to be clear and pink. When they present with other colors such as black or purple brown, yellow or white, they should look into it,” Dr. Miguel Cunha, founder of Gotham Footcare and a practicing podiatrist based in Manhattan, told TODAY.

The most typical discoloration is yellow brown and that’s most often an indication of fungal nails.

“Fungal nails are basically when fungus, which is an organism similar to a mold or a yeast, feeds on dead skin or dead nails,” he said. “It grows in dark, moist environments.”

Toenail discoloration due to fungus can often be treated with over-the-counter medicine. However, it could also spread to other toes and may need require prescription ointment or medication.

A patient with onychomycosis, or tinea unguium, which is a fungal infection of the nail. Symptoms include white or yellow nail discoloration, thickening of the nail and separation of the nail from the nail bed.Getty Images stock

Toenail discoloration could also be due to diabetes, poor circulation or heart or lung disease, according to the University Pittsburgh Medical Center.

Yellow, brittle nails could also be a sign of nail psoriasis, which causes changes in the nails like discoloration. One study found that about 80 to 90 percent of people with plaque psoriasis also have nail psoriasis. Aging is also a cause of nail discoloration, typically with nails turning a grey or light yellow color.

Due to the potentially different causes of discolored nails, you’re better off seeing a podiatrist to get it checked out. If it is in fact toe fungus, it can easily spread to other toes if left untreated. And if it’s a sign of something more serious, it’s better to know, Cunha said.

2. Brown or dark stripe on nail

A brown or dark stripe or path on the nail, or browning onto the cuticle or skin around the nail may be a sign of melanoma and should be taken seriously, especially if it's spreading to the skin.

If the brown strip or discoloration extends into your toenail bed or skin, see a podiatrist or doctor right away. In addition to melanoma, brown stripes or patches on toenails could also be a sign of HIV or lupus, Cunha said.

“In more advanced cases, it can spread on to the cuticle area or the skin around the nail. That’s an ominous sign — it’s means it’s growing and spreading,” according to Dr. Phoebe Rich, dermatologist and director of the Nail Disorder Clinic at Oregon Health and Sciences University.

Sometimes African-Americans and people with darker-colored skin have the pigmentation of their skin leak into the nail bed. Additionally, chemotherapy drugs can cause brown patches on the nail. But he urges people to get it checked out, since a biopsy might be needed.

3. Purple and black nails or white spots

Purple and black nails usually indicate you hurt yourself! When there's trauma, such as you stubbing your toe, you can develop subungual hematoma, which is the medical term for a bruise underneath your toenail. Usually, it will go away with time, however if you fear you may have broken your toe, call your doctor.

Nails that have white spots on them are also often an indication of trauma to the nail, especially if you play sports or run regularly.

“If you’re a runner, a black or purple nail could mean you developed a micro-trauma to the nail bed called punctate leukonychia, which is essentially a bruise of the nailbed,” Cunha said.

White spots on the toenail are not due to a vitamin deficiency, as some think. In general, you can wait these spots out as they will gradually disappear.

4. Dry, cracked heels

While dry, cracked heels can be a sign that your foot needs moisture or a good scrub with a pumice stone, it could also be a sign of athlete’s foot.

“Foot fungus (like athlete's food) can cause that dryness, that scaliness, without causing toenail discoloration. A lot of women assume this is dryness,” Cunha said.

But if you have very dry, scaly feet, don’t rule out fungus, especially if it’s in the winter.

“In the winter, when people are wearing closed-toe shoes, they’re wearing heavy socks, there’s a lot more moisture, which can lead to fungus or an infection,” he said.

To avoid contracting athlete’s foot, avoid walking barefoot in gyms and in public showers.

In some cases, dry, cracked heels could also be a sign of diabetes or thyroid problems. If your dry, cracked heels don’t respond to moisturizer or are accompanied by other foot or toe symptoms, see a doctor.

5. Foot, ankle or back pain

“People just shove their feet inside shoes,” Cunha said. “They often neglect foot or toe problems.”

“You shouldn’t have to live with pain, I think a lot of people just assume that ‘Oh I can live through this,’ or ‘It’s not an issue,’” Cunha said. “But it becomes more difficult when it goes from an acute issue to a chronic issue.”

Cunha said a common issue he sees is people who sprain their ankles and don’t properly treat it with orthotics or physical therapy. Untreated ankle sprains can lead to the ligaments surrounding your ankle becoming loose, or the development of scar tissue, which can lead to recurring ankle sprains or lasting pain.

To avoid this, see a doctor if you sprain your ankle, and see a podiatrist if you have lasting or recurring pain.

Back pain could also be related to problems with your feet.

“Your posture, your gait, your locomotion, these can be related to your feet,” he said. “If the base of your feet is off, that’s going to throw off your feet, your ankles, your back.”

“I think it’s important to pay attention to your feet,” he said.