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June 14, 2021

Struggling to stop biting your nails? There are health reasons to quit

There are gradual ways to kick the unsanitary habit

Wellness Habits
chronic nail-biting Source/Image licensed from Ingram Image

Chronic nail biting, referred to as onychophagia, most likely won't cause long-term nail damage as long as the nail bed remains undamaged, but the habit isn't without risks.

Nail biting, a chronic habit related to feelings of anxiety or boredom, is generally considered harmless — particularly when compared to habits like smoking or drinking. 

But doctors say the unsanitary habit can increase the risk of infection and damage teeth. 

Nail biting is most common among children and teens, but many adults struggle with the habit as well. According to a study from the University of Calgary, about 50% of people will do it at some point in their lives.

Chronic nail biting, referred to as onychophagia, most likely won't cause long-term nail damage as long as the nail bed remains undamaged, the Mayo Clinic says. But the habit isn't without risks.

Any breaks in the skin around the nail can increase the risk of an infection developing, especially if a person has long and painful hangnails. Germs also are more easily spread from the fingers to the mouth. 

"Your fingernails are almost twice as dirty as your fingers. Bacteria often gets stuck under the nails, and can then be transferred to the mouth, causing infections of the gums and throat," Dr. Michael Shapiro, medical director and founder of Vanguard Dermatology in New York City, told SHAPE magazine.

Nail biting also can lead to tooth grinding and jaw clenching, behaviors that can cause chronic headaches, broken teeth and Temporomandibular Joint syndrome, a disorder that often causes pain in the muscles that control the jaw, neck and shoulder.

Nibbling on nails also can cause viruses like the human papillomavirus, or HPV, to spread to other fingers, the face and mouth.

Kicking the habit

Nail biting often is triggered by certain emotions, psychologists say. It could be boredom, anxiety or even overstimulation. It is important for nail biters to identify their triggers and find healthier ways to manage them. Behavioral therapy may be helpful for some people.

Dylan Dryer, a meteorologist on the "Today" show, recently announced that she is trying to quit nail biting after getting a finger infection. Jenny Yip, a clinical psychologist at the Renewed Freedom Center in Los Angles, is helping her kick the behavior with habit reversal training.

The goal of such training, Yip told "Today," is to increase awareness of what people are doing and to provide alternative ways to respond to the urge to bite or pick at their nails, like playing with a pen or fidget cube or by chewing gum. Preventive measures, such as putting lotion on the fingers or getting a gel manicure, also can help, she said.

Other advice from Mayo Clinic and Healthline include:

•Keep nails trimmed and manicured to reduce the temptation to bite them 
•Put bandages around the nails as a reminder not to nibble
•Break the habit one finger at time instead of trying to go cold turkey

Dermatologists say if people who experience any of the following symptoms should get evaluated by their doctor: ingrown nails, skin or nail infection, nail discoloration or deformity, bleeding, swelling or pain around the nail, and nails that are separating from the surrounding skin.

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