Nail biting is a relatively simple and non-destructive oral compulsive habit. It is sometimes described as a parafunctional habit since the usual use of our mouth is speaking, eating and drinking.
Nail biting usually begins in children or adolescents and can continue to adults. However, unsanitary and chronic nail biting doesn’t cause any long-term nail damage.
Nail biting usually stops on its own. But in some cases, it can cause some harmful effects on your skin, nails and oral tissues.
Continue on this article if you have the habit of biting your nails and want to get rid of it.
What is nail-biting?
Nail biting or onychophagia is an oral compulsive habit. It is prevalent, especially among children and adolescents.
Though it is generally considered harmless, people who bite their nails do have cosmetic concerns about how their nails look.
It is usually associated with other habits like skin picking or skin biting, etc. Although nail biting is not considered pathological, the difference between unhealthy obsession and rational behavior is not always clear.
Signs and symptoms of nail biting
People with the habit of nail-biting show both psychological and physical symptoms. Chronic nail biters may experience –
- A distressful feeling of unease or tension before biting
- Feelings of relief or even pleasure after biting
- Feelings of shame, embarrassment, and guilt, often related to the appearance of physical damage to skin and nails caused by biting
- Tissue damage to fingers, nails, and cuticles
- Mouth injuries, dental problems, abscesses and infections
- Complicated family and social relationships
Causes of nail biting
Some potential causes of nail biting are –
- Genetic link; you are more likely to bite your nails if either or both of your parents had this habit.
- Higher than average rates of mood and anxiety disorders.
- When you feel nervous, bored, lonely or even hungry.
- Nail biting can also be transferred from earlier thumb or finger sucking habit.
- It is associated with Attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorders, oppositional defiant disorder, separation anxiety, enuresis, tic disorder, and other mental health issues. (1)
Why should you stop biting your nails?
Nail biting doesn’t cause any permanent damage. But it has still some adverse effects which can make you consider stopping this habit altogether. Some of these adverse effects are –
- Nail biting can damage the tissues around the nails which can make your nails grow weirdly and you end up with abnormal looking nails.
- This habit can spoil your smile as it can chip, crack or break your teeth.
- When you bite your nails, you increase the risk of transferring germs from your hands to your mouth and contract an infection.
- When you bite your nails, your skin around the nails breaks which creates an easy way for the germs to get in.
How can you prevent nail biting?
There are many behavioral therapy methods which can correct the nail-biting habit.
But before you go for them, here are some tips which can help you prevent biting your nails and avoid any unnecessary treatment –
- Keep your nails as short as possible, so that you don’t have enough nail to grab with your teeth.
- Coat your nails with bitter-tasting nail polish. The bitter flavor discourages the nail-biting habit. Typically denatonium benzoate is used, the bitterest chemical compound known.
- Wear gloves whenever and wherever you can. If you can’t reach your nails, you won’t be tempted to bite them.
- Keep yourself active to avoid anxiety and stress.
- Try to recognize your triggers which make you resort to nail biting. Once you know what your triggers are, you can find ways to cope with it.
- Keep your mouth and hands busy, so you don’t think about biting your nails. Fiddle with a stress ball or pen etc. or chew gum, preferably sugarless to keep your mouth busy.
Treatment for nail biting
Generally, nail-biting habit stops with time and age. But you can prevent this habit by using any of the above tips and tricks.
In some severe case, you may need to visit a counselor or doctor if you are unable to stop yourself from biting your nails. (2)
Treatment in such cases focuses on removing or reducing any emotional triggers associated with nail biting.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) with habit-reversal training and progressive muscle relaxation and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), along with a self-help technique known as movement decoupling, are some of the behavioral therapies which can be applied to cure this habit. (3)
Any treatment or therapy can only be successful with the full cooperation of the person with the nail-biting habit, along with positive reinforcement and regular follow-ups. (4)
Take away message
Nail biting is a pretty common habit which is mostly seen in children and adults. Some researchers believe that it could have genetic links, but it has not been definitively proven yet.
Usually, nail biting is a sign of stress and anxiety. You may even want to bite your nails if you are feeling bored or hungry.
Keep yourself active and stress-free to rid yourself of this habit.