Most people are likely to know the common experience of pruney figures after a long bath, swimming, or washing dishes. It may be more likely to happen in warm water than cold water.
What causes pruney fingers?
Fingers can become “pruney” after a long bath or swimming.
Pruney fingers occur when the nervous system sends a message to the blood vessels to become narrower. The narrowed blood vessels reduce the volume of the fingertips slightly, causing loose folds of skin that form wrinkles.
Scientists still do not fully understand the purpose of the fingers wrinkling when exposed to water or cold temperatures.
A small study in 2013 suggested that it is easier to grip objects in water with wrinkled fingers, meaning that the phenomenon may be an evolutionary change that helps humans adapt to wet conditions.
However, a 2014 study found contradictory results and concluded that finger wrinkles due to water exposure did not affect how well humans could handle wet or dry objects.
Immersion in water is the most common cause of pruney fingers. There are other, less common causes of wrinkling or puckering of the skin on the fingers, however.
Pruney fingers are not usually the only symptoms of a medical condition. If a person does frequently experience pruney fingers due to a medical condition, they will often appear alongside other symptoms.
The following conditions may cause pruney or wrinkly skin on the fingers:
When you don’t drink enough water, your skin loses some of its elasticity. This can result in pruney fingers and other parts of your body.
Adults should drink six to eight glasses of water per day, especially during or after exercise, or in hot weather.
Other drinks, such as juice, soft drinks, and even tea, can make you more dehydrated. For this reason, don’t include these types of drinks when measuring your water intake. Other symptoms of dehydration include:
- dry mouth
- dark yellow urine
- increased thirst
High blood glucose levels from any type of diabetes can cause pruney fingers. Diabetes can damage the sweat glands, and the lack of sweat can cause dryness. There are three types of diabetes: type 1, type 2, and gestational. Many of the symptoms overlap between the three variations and include:
- frequent urination
- increased thirst
- extreme hunger
- high ketones in urine
- blurred vision
- unexplained weight loss
- frequent infections
The thyroid gland — which is inside the neck and shaped like a butterfly — is responsible for body temperature and metabolism regulation.
Your thyroid regulates how you break down food and whether that food is used for immediate energy or is stored away.
Those with a thyroid disorder can have pruney fingers, as well as a skin rash, which can also cause prune-like wrinkles. Thyroid disorders have other symptoms as well, depending on the type:
- puffy face
- weight gain
- increased sensitivity to cold
- pain and stiffness in the joints
- thinning hair
- sudden weight loss
- increased appetite
- increased sensitivity to heat
- fine, brittle hair
- menstrual changes
Swelling in the arms and legs is referred to as lymphedema. In most cases, just one limb is affected. But sometimes it can affect both arms or both legs. The swelling is caused by a blockage in the lymphatic system, usually as a result of the removal of or damage to your lymph nodes during cancer treatment. The lymph fluid isn’t able to drain properly and the fluid buildup causes swelling. When the swelling occurs in the arm, it can affect the fingers and cause pruney fingers. Other symptoms of lymphedema include:
- a sensation of tightness or heaviness
- aches or discomfort
- decreased range of motion
- hard or thick skin (fibrosis)
- frequent infections
Raynaud’s disease is an extreme sensitivity to cold. It affects the small blood vessels that supply blood to the extremities of the body, including the fingers and toes.
The key symptoms of Raynaud’s disease are fingers turning white or blue in the cold, numbness, and tingling. The skin on the fingertips can also look puckered, wrinkled, or pruney. Stress can also trigger symptoms.
There is no cure for Raynaud’s disease, but a person with the condition can take steps to reduce stress levels and ensure they do not get too cold. For symptom management, people can take calcium channel blockers.
Atopic dermatitis is a long-term form of eczema. It causes red, dry skin that may itch or swell. Atopic dermatitis commonly affects the hands and fingers, backs of the knees, and inside the elbows.
Eczema dries out the skin and can cause it to wrinkle or pucker. The fingertips may look pinched.
Systematic lupus erythematosus, often referred to as “lupus,” is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system unnecessarily attacks itself, causing chronic inflammation.
When the inflammation occurs in the fingers, they might become red and pruney due to the swollen glands. Other symptoms of lupus vary widely, and many are present in other conditions not associated with lupus. Symptoms can include:
- hair loss
- kidney problems
- gastrointestinal problems
- dry eyes and mouth
Vitamin B-12 deficiency
Vitamin B-12 is just one of the vitamins that can keep you from developing pruney fingers. It is responsible for blood formation, nerve function, cell metabolism, and DNA production. Most people aren’t deficient in this vitamin because it can be stored in the body for several years.
However, if you are vegan or vegetarian, you have an increased chance of being deficient in vitamin B-12, since it is present in meat, poultry, fish, and dairy. Symptoms of vitamin B-12 deficiency include:
- poor balance
- shortness of breath
- tingly feet
- memory loss
When to see a doctor
Pruney fingers due to water exposure are nothing to worry about if they go back to normal after being dry for some time.
If a person has pruney or wrinkly fingers without having been in water but does not have any other noticeable symptoms, they may be mildly dehydrated. Anyone experiencing dehydration should drink more water.
If a person has been drinking enough water, pruney fingers may be a symptom of an underlying medical condition.
Anyone concerned about frequently wrinkly fingers can speak to a doctor. Making a note of other symptoms and possible triggers can help a doctor make a diagnosis.
The cause of your pruney fingers will determine what type of treatment you need. While pruney fingers caused by water immersion is a harmless condition and will quickly fade, and drinking more water often cures dehydration, other causes may require medical treatment.
Depending on the type of diabetes you have, your doctor may recommend monitoring your blood sugar, eating a healthy diet, and using insulin therapy or oral medications.
Treating a thyroid disorder
For hyperthyroidism, your treatment might include medications, radioactive iodine, surgery, or beta blockers.
Hypothyroidism is usually treated with thyroid hormone medication in pill form and is usually taken for your entire life.
Treatment for this condition can involve exercises, massage, compression garments, pneumatic compression, wrapping of the arm, and complete decongestive therapy (CDT).
There is no cure for lymphedema, only a managing of symptoms to reduce swelling and control pain.
Depending on the severity of the lupus, your doctor may suggest taking anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), corticosteroids, or immunosuppressants.
Management also includes:
- avoiding excessive sunlight
- getting plenty of rest
- engaging in moderate exercise
- avoiding smoking and secondhand smoke
Treating a vitamin B-12 deficiency
Your doctor may advise you to take a vitamin B-12 supplement, as an injection, a pill dissolved under your tongue, or as a nasal spray.
The bottom line
Most of us will experience pruney fingers at some point in our lives, whether we are having fun in a pool or taking an extra-long bath.
When you get pruney fingers without being immersed in water, this otherwise harmless side effect could be pointing to something more serious.
If you develop pruney fingers without water and they don’t go away, make an appointment with your doctor. Make a list for your doctor of any co-occurring symptoms. They’ll be able to determine the cause of your pruney fingers and get you the treatment you need.
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