You might be biting your nails if:

Do you ever stress over a harrowing situation?
You are watching an action/drama movie?
First date jitters?
A close call on the highway?

Some may label these events as “nail-biters”. But that is just a figure of speech. If you literally and physically have a habit of biting your nails, you are not doing yourselves a favor. Our culture equates efficient grooming with the use of nail clippers or nail files. If you are a nail-biter, you are participating in a pathologic parafunctional grooming activity knows as onychophagia.

When biting your nails, you are actually demonstrating one of the most common nervous habits of young adults and children along with nose picking, hair pulling, tooth grinding or skin picking (1).

According to the American Psychiatric Association, nail biting is an impulse control disorder and it is classified under Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and other related disorders (2).

Studies have shown that between 26 to 33% of children between the ages of 7 to 10 are nail biters. Up until the age of 10, nail biting is observed equally in boys and girls but increases significantly in boys thereafter. Interestingly, nail biters don’t discriminate between the 10 fingers and tend to bite all of them equally thus relating to their OCD (3).

Besides being unsanitary, there are several complications that may arise from this aberrant behavior. In addition to the obvious esthetic concerns, nail biting can damage the cuticles, cause secondary bacterial infections and even dental problems (3).

  • Fungal Infections of the Fingers: Biting your nails leaves the nail without its natural protection. The cuticle serves as a protection from bacteria and numerous infections (it helps also protecting the new nail as it begins growing out of the root), and once the fungus enter your fingernails, there’s no quick and easy fix; in fact, nail fungus treatments take months to finish, even using the most potent medicines available (like Sporanox or Terbinafine).
  • Bacterial Transmission: Your nails are an ideal location for bacteria to thrive, and that includes potentially pathogenic bacteria like Salmonella and E. coli. 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 considering they are difficult to keep clean, making this a primary point of transfer for infectious organisms.
  • Warts due to HPV Infections: Warts on your fingers caused by human papillomavirus, or HPV, are common among chronic nail biters. (Here I’m referring 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.
  • Dental Problems: Let’s face it, biting your nails can cause you to chip your front teeth. That alone should be reason enough to not bite your nails! Plus all the bacteria you may ingest! Ewwwww! Nail biting can also 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!

Therefore, if you are an onychophagialist, or nail biter, and now, after reading this blog you start to become self-conscious, there is help for you. If you have the desire to quit biting your nails, here are a few suggestions:

  1. Since this condition is often related to stress, find yourself another outlet for your anxiety to break the habit.
  2. Take up an active hobby which may involve use of your hands, exercise, maybe talking to others online about their similar habit and what they did to overcome it!
  3. Apply a clear bitter-tasting nail polish such as Bite It, Bite Ender, Control It, and Mavala Stop.
  4. For women, investing in frequent manicures can have an extremely positive result, as you may tend to not bite them after spending the time and money to get them done.

Whatever your motivation is to quit nail biting; short unattractive nails, infected, sore, or bleeding fingers, chipped teeth, or just the bacterially and fungally gross factor, just set your mind into a positive frame and QUIT! This isn’t a nail-biting event worth biting your nails!

Dr. O.
(1) Sachan A, Chaturvedi T P. Onychophagia (Nail Biting), anxiety, and malocclusion. Indian J Dent Res 2012;23;680-2.
(2) American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Fifth Edition. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association; 2013.
(3) Leung AK, Robson WL. Nailbiting. Clin Pediatr (Phila) 1990 Dec; 29 (12): 690-2.