Nail biting, also known as onychophagia, is a common habit that many people do without even realizing it.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, nail biting typically begins in childhood and can continue through adulthood.
Unconsciously, people start biting their nails while involved in another activity, such as reading, watching television or talking on the phone. The habit is practiced more in times of stress or excitement, or in times of boredom or inactivity.
If you have the habit of nail biting, it is time to stop. The side effects can be more than cosmetic.
At times, nail biting can be a symptom of a bigger issue like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or depression.
Here are the reasons why nail biting is harmful and dangerous to your health.
1. Spreads Germs to Your Mouth
Your hands and nails are loaded with bacteria, fungus, yeast and other harmful germs. When you put your unwashed hands and nails in your mouth, you are just increasing the risk of an infection.
Your nails are an ideal location for bacteria like salmonella and E. coli.
A 2007 study published in Oral Microbiology and Immunology tested 59 people to see whether nail biting had any real effect on transporting bacteria to the mouth.
The results show that Enterobacteriaceae were more prevalent in the oral cavities of children with nail-biting habits (76%) than in children with no oral habit (26.5%).
It can even increase the risk of warts and herpes infection.
2. Stomach Problems
When you bite your nails, harmful microbes are transferred from your nails to your mouth and make their way to your gut.
Once inside the stomach, these microbes can cause gastrointestinal infections that lead to diarrhea and abdominal pain.
Children with a nail biting habit are at a greater risk of digestive and enteric diseases like intestinal worm infections due to their weak immune system.
3. Nail Infections
Nail biting also increases the risk of a nail infection. As you bite your nails, tiny tears or abrasions occur around the skin near your nails.
Harmful bacteria, yeast and other microorganisms can enter through these tears or abrasions, thus increasing the risk of infection.
The infection can lead to swelling, redness and pus around your nail, which can be difficult to treat if you do not stop nail biting.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, biting your nails can lead to hangnails and make the skin around your nails bleed.
4. Damages Nail Bed
Apart from making you more susceptible to nail infections, biting your nails can cause severe damage to the nail bed, cuticles as well as the surrounding skin.
A 2011 study published in the Indian Journal of Plastic Surgery reports that nail deformities can be caused by subconscious habits like biting the nail as well as picking objects using the nail.
These habits cause elevation of the nail at the distal part and destroy the protection offered by the hyponychium at the distal end.
Chronic nail biting also can lead to irreversible shortening of the nails.
5. Dental Problems
Nail biting is not at all good for your dental health. It can interfere with proper dental occlusion and your teeth may shift from their original position.
It can also crack, chip or wear down your front teeth over time. Those who wear braces put their teeth at even greater risk.
Along with affecting your teeth, biting your nails can damage your gum tissue.
A 2000 study published in the Journal of Periodontology reports that habitual fingernail biting can cause gingival injury.
Another 2010 study published in the Journal of Contemporary Dental Practice confirms that a fingernail-biting habit can induce a periodontal traumatic injury yielding a more serious complication, such as a gingival abscess.
6. Can Lead to Bruxism
People who bite their fingernails when stressed could be at greater risk for bruxism, according to the Academy of General Dentistry.
Those who have the habit of nail biting can even chew on pencils or clench their teeth during times of stress or anxiety when their hands are occupied in other activities. Clenching their teeth can put a person at a greater risk for bruxism.
The unintentional grinding or clenching of teeth may cause facial pain, jaw pain, tense muscles, chronic headaches and sensitive teeth.
7. Impaired Quality of Life
Nailing biting is associated with one’s emotional state and is a common habit practiced during stress, anxiety and boredom.
According to a 2007 study published in Behavior Research and Therapy, nail biting occurs in young adults as a result of boredom or working on difficult problems, which may reflect a particular emotional state.
In fact, a 2014 study published in Acta Dermato-Venereologica found that people who chronically bite their nails report significantly higher quality of life impairment than those who do not.
Along with the habit, even resisting nail biting can lead to tension, which also negatively influences quality of life.
Tips to stop nail biting
- Cut your nails regularly and trim them short. You will not be as tempted to bite on short nails.
- Get some bitter-tasting nail polish from the market and apply it on your nails. The bitter taste will discourage you from biting your nails.
- You can even apply the bitter tasting juice of Indian lilac or bitter gourd to your nails.
- Treat yourself to a professional manicure to break the habit of nail biting. You can opt for acrylic nails or add nail décor like jewels, patterns and textures.
- When watching television or reading a book, cover your nails with tape or stickers or wear gloves to prevent biting.
- When you are stressed or tense, try playing with a stress ball to keep your hands busy and away from your mouth.
- Maintain a healthy diet to help your nails repair and grow well.
- Consult a doctor and consider behavioral therapy, such as habit reversal training.