I have a good friend who bites her nails when she’s stressed. Oftentimes, the habit is so second nature that she’s barely cognizant that she’s doing it. She can go through a conversation looking like she’s about to gnaw off her finger and only barely register that it’s happened.
It’s a habit that’s fairly common, but one that has the potential to become destructive.
In fact, the habit is part of a group of disorders classified as “pathological grooming” that will get more attention in newest iteration of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Soon it will be grouped with disorders like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (NPR).
But before you casual nail biters register concern, there’s a line that one must cross. For a behavior to be considered a disorder, it must be detrimental, impairing, or otherwise a very serious issue (Huffington Post). If you occasionally nibble at your nails and it’s not overly often or overly severe, you’re probably fine (though it can contribute to infection).
If it is a severe problem, it’s important to talk to your doctor so you can work out a treatment plan (Acta Dermato-Venereologica).
Why Do You Bite Your Nails?
Nail biting — also called onychophagia — is a common habit that’s most often seen in children, but is also fairly common into adulthood. It’s closely tied with anxiety, but can manifest itself at other times as well. Most often, it happens when someone is stressed out or upset, but some might bite their nails out of boredom (Clinician’s Corner). In fact, the habit might start as stress for some and then turn into something they do without thinking.
It’s typically not seen before the age of three, and between seven- to ten-years-old, about 28 to 33% of children are nail biters. But nail biting spikes during adolescence, when about 45% of kids are nail biters (which isn’t exactly surprising when you consider what a stressful time adolescence is) (Clinical Pediatrics). But there is one interesting note about adolescence: Boys are more likely to continue than girls. After that, nail biting tapers off for many between the ages of 16 and 18, but that doesn’t mean it stops for everyone.
And researchers have noticed stages in nail biting. It starts with the nails hovering around the mouth, followed by tapping your teeth with your nails, then pressing the nails against the teeth and biting vigorously, followed by checking over your nails either by looking at them or feeling them.
Complications for Nail Biters
While nail biting isn’t as harmful as some habits one might pick up, it can still cause some damage — and not just the cosmetic kind. The good news is that nail biting doesn’t cause permanent damage to nails (in fact, some studies have found that it can increase nail growth by 20%, possibly because the movement stimulates the nails’ roots.) But there are other problems that can arise.
Nail biting can cause skin infections in the area where you bite them, as well as make existing conditions worse. But it doesn’t just affect your nails. All the dirt and bacteria under your nails and on your hands comes into contact with your mouth, spreading germs that can cause colds and other illnesses (Mayo Clinic).
Nail biting might cause misalignment of the teeth, but there aren’t specific changes with the teeth associated with nail biting. However, it is possible to cause infections in the mouth; and conditions of the mouth, such as herpes, may cause problems for the fingers, such as herpetic whitlow.
If nail biting is a serious problem or is very damaging to the nail biter, it’s possible that it’s a sign of a condition that falls under the umbrella of OCD. The same goes for skin picking and hair pulling.
How to Stop Nail Biting
Quitting nail biting is a strikingly different process for adults and children — something that many, many articles note. Punishing children or putting emphasis on the habit often exacerbates the stress and can also cause the child to insist on doing it more.
In order to use the kinds of tactics sometimes recommended, such as Band-Aids on fingers or mittens, it’s important that the child shares the desire to stop nail biting. Otherwise, it’s best to consider the underlying reasons for nail biting. Giving children attention and teaching them appropriate ways to relieve stress can help stop their nail biting.
For adults, nail biting is probably a conscious desire on the part of the biter, and so different people have found different coping strategies. Some use acrylic nails, Band-Aids, or just plain mindfulness. Studies have been done and found that habit reversal training, often used to treat tics, has better results for long-term treatment (99% reduction in a five-month follow-up) than negative practice (60% reduction in five-month follow-up) (Behavioural Research and Therapy).
If nail biting is a serious enough problem, doctors may recommend medications that are used to treat this and other similar tics.
Nail biting can be a relatively harmless habit or the sign of a serious underlying condition. While some find bitten-up nails a bit unsightly, the damage isn’t permanent. Still, there are problems that can arise from doing it, such as infection and illness. There are many different ways to stop nail biting, depending on whether the quitter is an adult or child and what the severity of the condition is.