Nail biting, or onychophagia, is a relatively common habit that affects people of all ages. There are many theories as to why people bite their nails, but most agree that it often stems from stress or may be an activity that’s picked up as a child.
Estimates suggest that 30 percent of children, 45 percent of teenagers, 25 percent of young adults, and 5 percent of older adults bite their nails,1 with the aesthetic consequences being the most obvious.
For some people, the social stigma and embarrassment from the look of their nails causes them to become depressed, isolated, or avoid activities they would otherwise enjoy. Beyond this, however, there is also reason to worry if you regularly bite your nails warns Dr. Phillips. One of which concerns nail biting and your teeth.
5 Little-Known Risks to Biting Your Nails
Nail biting may actually be harmful to you beyond the emotional effects. For instance…
1. Disease-Causing Bacteria
Your nails are an ideal location for bacteria to thrive, and that includes potentially pathogenic bacteria like Salmonella and E. coli (which would love to call the underside of your nail tips home).
As you bite your nails, those bacteria easily transfer into your mouth and the rest of your body, where they may lead to infections. Your fingernails may actually be twice as dirty as your fingers,2 considering they’re difficult to keep clean, making this a prime point of transfer for infectious organisms.
2. Nail Infections
Nail biters are susceptible to paronychia, a skin infection that occurs around your nails. As you chew your nails, bacteria, yeast, and other microorganisms can enter through tiny tears or abrasions, leading to swelling, redness, and pus around your nail.
This painful condition may have to be drained surgically. Bacterial infections caused by nail biting are actually one of the most common nail problems, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD).
3. Warts Due to HPV Infections
Warts on your fingers caused by human papillomavirus, or HPV, are common among chronic nail biters. This refers to the types of HPV that cause warts on your hands, as opposed to those that lead to genital warts and, rarely, cervical cancer. These warts can easily spread to your mouth and lips as you bite your nails. If you think this has happened to you, call Dr. Phillips and ask about our Oral HPV testing.
4. Dental Problems
Nail biting can interfere with proper dental occlusion, or the manner in which your upper and lower teeth come together when you close your mouth.
Your teeth may shift out of their proper position, become misshapen, wear down prematurely, and become weakened if you bite your nails over time. The Academy of General Dentistry estimates that frequent nail biters may rack up $4,000 in additional dental bills over the course of their lifetime.
5. Impaired Quality of Life
A study published in 2014 found that people who chronically bite their nails report significantly higher quality of life impairment than those who do not.
The level of impairment rises with time spent on nail biting, the number of involved fingernails and those who report visible nail abnormalities. Tension when trying to resist nail biting, suffering due to nail biting or nail-eating behavior also negatively influenced quality of life.
Is Nail Biting a Mental Disorder?
In 2012, the American Psychiatric Association decided to re-classify nail biting as a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), along with other forms of “pathological grooming.”
If nail biting is taken to the extreme, and is significantly interfering with your life and causing you extreme emotional and physical pain, you could, perhaps, make a case for a psychiatric-disorder connection.
In the majority of cases this appears not to be the case. As reported in the journal Behavior Research and Therapy, most cases of nail biting in young adults does not appear to be the result of a psychiatric disorder but rather simple boredom or stress:
“Nail biting in young adults occurs as a result of boredom or working on difficult problems, which may reflect a particular emotional state. It occurs least often when people are engaged in social interaction or when they are reprimanded for the behavior.”
6 Simple Tips to Stop Biting Your Nails
Nail biting tends to begin in childhood, peak in adolescence, and then slowly (or abruptly), decline with age. Whether you’re an adult who can’t seem to kick the habit, or a parent of a child or teen who bites his or her nails, here are simple options that are often effective for quitting:
Keep a journal to identify your nail-biting triggers, such as boredom or watching TV, then avoid the triggers as much as possible.
Wrap your fingertips with Band-Aids or electrical tape.
Keep your nails trimmed short or manicured Keep your hands busy with other activities.
Consider behavioral therapy, such as habit reversal training.
Put an unpleasant tasting substance on your fingertips (vinegar, hot sauce, or commercially available bitter-tasting options).
If you have concerns about how your nail biting has affected your teeth or if you are at risk for HPV associated with nail biting, contact Brit Phillips DDS Fort Worth dentist.