Nails tend to harbour dirt and germs if they are not properly cleaned and maintained. Our hands come into contact with numerous surfaces and objects throughout the day, and some of these may carry bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens. When we don't clean our hands and nails regularly, these germs can accumulate under the nails and can make their way into our bodies, especially through nail biting.
In an interaction with the OnlyMyHealth team, Dr Shobha Subramanian Itolikar, Consultant-Internal Medicine, Fortis Hospital, Mulund, discusses why nail biting usually occurs and how it impacts our health.
Common Causes Of Nail Biting
“Nail biting, also known as onychophagy (onycho-nails, phage-love for), can be a dual problem,” says Dr Subramanian, explaining that it could indicate some underlying health issues or be a health concern. Some probable causes for nail-biting include:
- Boredom; a way to pass time
- Being fidgety by nature
- Anxiety can sometimes cause a person to chew their nails
- Children of nail-biter parents also pick up this trait, whether they’re exposed to it or not
- Bruxism, which is also called teeth grinding tendency
- Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
According to a study published in the Iranian Journal of Medical Sciences, nail biting is also one of the most common (28.6%) psychiatric problems in children and adolescents with Tourette syndrome.
Another study published in the Journal Acta Dermato-Venereologica found that onychophagia (nail biting) was present in 46.9% of total 339 participants.
"Among the participants with lifetime onychophagia, 22.5% met criteria of anxiety disorder and 3.1% of OCD, while in the group without onychophagia at least one anxiety disorder was diagnosed in 26.2% and OCD in 5.0%," the study adds.
Ways Nail Biting Affects Health
Nail biting, while often seen as a harmless habit, can actually have negative effects on both physical and mental health. Here are some ways in which nail biting can impact health:
- Frequent nail biting can lead to damaged, weakened, and uneven nails, which can cause the nails to become brittle and prone to splitting.
- Biting your nails can introduce bacteria and other pathogens from your hands and the environment into your mouth and around your nails, increasing your risk of infections.
- Constantly biting your nails can put pressure on your teeth and lead to dental issues, such as chipped or cracked teeth, enamel wear, and jaw problems.
- Swallowing nail fragments can potentially cause gastrointestinal issues if they are not digested properly or cause irritation to the digestive tract.
- As discussed, nail biting can be associated with stress, anxiety, or nervousness. While it may offer temporary relief, in the long run, it can contribute to increased stress and anxiety levels.
How To Break The Habit
Dr Subramanian says, “A person prone to nail biting can tackle it by consciously avoiding the habit, using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), an approach that helps individuals identify and modify negative thought patterns and behaviours, keeping nails trimmed and short, getting a regular manicure, and identifying and tackling triggers.” You can also use a special nail polish designed to discourage nail biting, as the bitter taste can act as a deterrent.