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Nail biting may sound unhygienic but it is one of the most commonly seen habits among the general population. In fact, most people tend to do it unconsciously either out of stress, anxiety or some sort of tension.

Whatever, be the reason, this habit damages nails and the skin underneath, so the new nails that grow have an abnormal appearance. It also increases the risk of infections and has a deteriorating effect on health.

If you too are tired of your nail biting habit and are wondering about ways to stop it, read on to find out some easy tips and tricks that may help you quit.

  1. Nail biting causes
  2. Side effects of biting nails
  3. How to stop biting nails: Management of nail biting
  4. When to see a doctor

Nail biting is medically known as onychophagia. It is classified as a type of habit disorders in the field of psychology, psychiatry, medicine and dentistry.

Though the exact cause of this habit is still unknown, it is often associated with anxiety and behavioural disorders, more precisely as a spectrum of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Boredom or working with difficult projects are speculated to be some other possible reasons.

Some researchers propose a relation between nail biting and body-focused repetitive behaviour (BFRB) and consider it as apart of BFRB just like hair pulling or skin picking.

People having a tendency to bite their nails often present with some characteristic psychological as well as physical signs. According to the Indian Journal of Dental Research, nail biting is preceded by a quick episode of distress, boredom or anxiety and has the following signs:

  • Placing of the hand near mouth frequently for a few seconds to half a minute
  • Putting nails between front teeth followed by rapid spasmodic biting of nails
  • After that nails are refrained from mouth
  • Disfiguring of nails and nail lesions might be seen in habitual individuals

According to an estimate, around half of the children aged between 10 to 18 years of age develop nail-biting habit at some point in their life. It is seen more prevalently in teens and boys. However, most people tend to discard this habit by the age of 30.

Nail biting may look like an otherwise harmless condition but it does more harm than just disfiguring your nails. Here are a few consequences of nail biting:

Transfers germs to your mouth and gut
Fingernails harbour millions of microbes that may be transferred to your mouth when you bite your nails. Even if you otherwise keep your nails squeaky clean, you can never be too sure. This leads to increased chances of oral and gastrointestinal conditions, especially in people who otherwise don't follow good hygienic practices.

Increased risk of nail infection
Biting your fingernails frequently might increase the risk of paronychia (a nail infection). This condition is characterised by redness and swelling around the nail or cuticle. If the causative organism is a bacteria it may even lead to the formation of pus-filled blisters in severe cases, making it difficult to do day to day activities.

If a person with skin warts around nails develops the habit of nail-biting, it can lead to systemic spread HPV infection.

(Read more: Nail fungus: symptoms, causes and treatment)

Disfigurement of teeth
The basic function of teeth is chewing food, it is not made for biting nails. Chronic indulgence in nail-biting could exert a light but continuous force on teeth, which might shift your teeth to a different position. However, the extent of damage depends on the way of nail-biting. Nail biting may also lead to thinning of tooth enamel, which eventually becomes the reason for irregular surface structure and teeth sensitivity.

Furthermore, biting your nails will give entry to microorganisms inside your oral cavity and cause bad breath or halitosis.

Development of ingrown nails or hangnails
Continuous biting of fingernails may also result in hangnails or ingrown nails. Hangnails are not exactly nails, they are skin outgrowths near nails. Hangnails are painful and tender to touch and they often become infected.

Ingrown nails are most commonly seen in toenails. However, it can develop in a fingernail too. An ingrown nail occurs when a growing nail changes its direction, curls down and get embedded in the skin underneath, causing pain and discomfort. Just like hangnails, ingrown nails are prone to infections. They may also need surgical intervention in serious cases.

(Read more: Ingrown toenails)

Risk of toxicity
This one is especially for those who love to wear nail paints. Nail paints contain harmful chemicals, which you may end up ingesting every time you chew on your nails. Though it won’t show sudden changes in your health, in the long run, nail paint chemicals can have a negative effect on your organs and body functions.

Since it is a nervous and mostly involuntary gesture, quitting nail biting is not as easy as it seems. It requires strict management including behavioural and psychotherapy approaches along with putting physical barriers over fingernails to break this habit. But the most important factor for a successful treatment is patient education. Until or unless the individual is not motivated, no therapy can promise a positive outcome.

The person has to be aware of their habit, its impact on health and psychology and he/she should be interested in giving up the habit. Immediate family and friends also play an important role as support, especially in the case of children. Punishment or laughing may make them more stressed or nervous and increase the problem. You can also take professional help if all other measures fail. There are experts who can aid you in managing habit disorders and quitting nail biting easily.

However, you would still be the one who will have to take the first step. To make it easy for you, here are some easy ways you can try at home to get rid of your nail biting habit.

Trim and file your nails: Try to keep your nails trimmed and filed. The less the amount of nail available for biting, the less you get tempted to bite on it. On the plus side, it will also make your hands look neat and well cared for. Short nails don’t really accumulate as much dust either. This reduces the chances of bacterial growth and infections.

Apply nail paint: Nail paints could make your hands look really attractive but they can also help you quit your nail biting habit. Surely, you wouldn’t want to chew on harmful chemicals right? If normal nail paints don’t help, you can buy specialised nail paints that are made to help with nail biting and thumb sucking habits. These are made from non-toxic chemicals but have a bitter taste that is enough to give a good shock to your taste buds every time you put your nail into your mouth, so you subconsciously start to keep away from chewing them.

Manicure: Develop a habit of regular manicure, this way your nails will look attractive and beautiful. Probably you will decrease the frequency of biting as nobody wants to let go of the money in vain by biting well-manicured nails. A manicure will also help improve your nail health and make them look shinier and healthier so you could enjoy shapely nails for once! Not much to give up for so many perks.

Cover your nail: If all else fails, just cover your bitten nails with tapes, stickers or bandages to make you remember to quit every time you try to put your nails between your teeth. You can also wear gloves to avoid exposure of nails and prevent from biting them.

Replace nail biting habit with a good habit: The American Association of Dermatology recommends to switch to some good habits when you feel like you are going to bite your nails like playing with a stress ball or putty balls. The idea behind this is to keep your hands busy so that it does not go inside your mouth. It will also help relieve stress, which more often than not is one of the major triggers for nail biting.

Identification of triggering agents: You have to put every effort if you genuinely want to come out of this bad habit. Try to notice what triggers you to bite your nails. This might vary from person to person and situation to situation. It can be a physical stimulus like hangnails or ingrown nails or mental stimuli like boredom, loneliness, stress or anxiety. When you know what is your trigger, you will act in a planned way to stop the trigger transforming into a nail-biting action or might just keep yourself distant from triggers as much as possible.

Recognizing the specific times when you tend to bite your nails may also help in counteracting it.

Start slowly, act gradually: Be patient with yourself. Nail biting is a stress reflex or a subconscious habit, it is not going to go in a single day. Professionals suggest a slow, gradual but regular approach to get rid of this habit. Take one step at a time, start with one nail like a thumbnail on day one, then to the next group of nails a few days later. Your ultimate goal should be to discard the habit completely.

Counsel your child: It has been seen that children develop this habit when they have fights with friends or disturbance in school. If your kid is indulged in a habit of nail-biting, talk to them to solve their problem before it gets seated in their psychology.

There are times when it becomes impossible to take control of your own habits. Nail biting is no different. Seek professional help if you experience the following:

  • If you have tried many times but the habit returns back
  • You bite your nails so hard that they have disfigured to a large extent
  • If you develop skin or nail infection due to nail biting
  • You are going through an emotional storm
  • In rare cases, nail biting can be a symptom of the obsessive-compulsive disorder so it is important to check in with a doctor to rule out this condition
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References

  1. Ahmad Ghanizadeh. Nail Biting; Etiology, Consequences and Management. Iran J Med Sci. 2011 Jun; 36(2): 73–79. PMID: 23358880
  2. Avesh Sachan, TP Chaturvedi. Onychophagia (Nail biting), anxiety, and malocclusion. Year : 2012 | Volume : 23 | Issue : 5 | Page : 680-682: Indian Journal of Dental Research [Internet]
  3.  Acta Dermato Venereologica 89(3):278-80 · February 2009 [Internet]; Onychophagia as a Spectrum of Obsessive-compulsive Disorder
  4. Texas A&M University, [Internet] United States. 5 REASONS TO STOP BITING YOUR NAILS.
  5. HealthLink BC [Internet] British Columbia; Nail-Biting
  6. American Academy of Dermatology. Rosemont (IL), US; How to stop biting your nails