Why You Need to Stop Biting Your Nails

nail biting

Story at-a-glance -

  • Your nails are more than purely aesthetic, or a platform for art and bright colors; they actually protect your fingers and serve as a window into your overall health
  • One 28-year-old man learned how dangerous nail biting may be when he developed sepsis. It nearly ended his life as he did not seek immediate medical care, but tried to sleep off his flu-like symptoms
  • Nail biting usually starts in childhood, peaks in adolescence and tapers off in adulthood; it may lead to infections, inflammation, herpetic whitlow, dental problems and bad breath and is often triggered by stress, anxiety or boredom
  • The habit may become an unconscious mannerism brought on by specific triggers; you may reduce or eliminate the habit through recognition of your triggers and using strategies such as the Emotional Freedom Techniques to address stress, anxiety and addictions

By Dr. Mercola

Globally, the cosmetic market reached $460 billion in 2014 and is estimated to reach $675 billion by 2020.1 Skin care products have the highest market share, while cosmetics used on nails contributes approximately 11.5 percent.2 Nail polish is the largest segment in the nail makeup category; premium nail polishes make up 38 percent of the market, where mass produced polishes contribute 61 percent. One research firm attributes the rising demand for nail polish in the young population to an increased presence of nail salons.3

While nails are often regarded as purely aesthetic, they are far more than a platform for art and bright colors. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, the shape, texture and color of your natural nail is a window into your overall health, including diseases such as diabetes, heart and lung conditions or liver and kidney disease.4 Some nail symptoms are harmless, while others may be indicative of chronic diseases.

The rate of nail growth is influenced by your nutritional status, chronic diseases, current medications, trauma and the aging process. However, nail biting — onychophagia — may mask some of these changes. Although a relatively common habit affecting people of all ages, many agree it stems from underlying stress or an activity picked up during childhood.

Estimates suggest 30 percent of children, 45 percent of teens, 25 percent of young adults and 5 percent of older adults bite their nails.5 For some, the embarrassment and social stigma related to the appearance of their nails may increase the risk of isolation or cause them to avoid activities they would otherwise enjoy. However, there are even more reasons you want to avoid biting your nails.

Nail Biting Led to Sepsis for One Man

Luke Hanoman was told he was lucky to be alive after he contracted a life threatening infection. Like a lot of people, Luke had a habit of biting his nails. At one point, he tore off a bit of skin and the area got infected. He didn't think too much of the small infection in his finger.6 However, it wasn't long before he started to have flu-like symptoms that continued to get worse, instead of better. His finger swelled and began throbbing, and he suffered cold sweats, fever and chills.

He began having trouble focusing, but thought he was fighting off a viral infection. Luke fought the symptoms for nearly a week, thinking he could sleep off the illness.7 Recognizing his symptoms were serious, his mother eventually called the National Health Service hotline and Luke was taken immediately to the hospital where he spent four days on IV antibiotics to treat sepsis. Luke said:8

"I used to bite my nails all the time. It was a nervous thing. And one day I bit the skin down the side of my nail. It hurt a bit but I didn't think anything of it. I was in work throughout the week and started to get flu-like symptoms which were gradually getting worse.

I thought I could just sleep it off. I went to bed on Friday night and woke up 2 p.m. the next day. I don't like taking time off work and just tried to carry on. I guess that's the dangerous bit. A lot of people would do the same. I think it's important people know that it can target anyone at any age."

Sepsis Requires Immediate Medical Treatment — Know the Symptoms

Once in the hospital, physicians immediately recognized symptoms of sepsis, including red lines over his body and an extremely high temperature. Sepsis is a medical emergency that may become fatal or severely damage organ systems. Nearly 1 million people in the U.S. are hospitalized each year with sepsis and the infection is in the top 10 diseases leading to mortality in America.9

Hanoman suffered many of the symptoms related to sepsis, including disorientation, shortness of breath, increased heart rate, extreme pain and clammy skin. Those who have a weakened immune system, chronic illness or a severe wound are at greater risk.10 While rare, any break in the skin exposed to bacteria may result in sepsis. Poisons released by the bacteria increase the inflammatory response in the body and ultimately lead to tissue damage. Rising antibiotic resistance increases your vulnerability to an overwhelming infection.11

Early treatment with antibiotics is crucial because if the infection goes on too long, it may go past the point at which antibiotics can successfully stop the damage. In the later stages, even killing the bacteria does not stop the cycle of inflammation, organ damage and tissue damage, which may ultimately result in death.12 It is important not to make a home diagnosis but to get help medical help as quickly as possible. Dr. Steven Simpson, medical director of the Sepsis Alliance commented:13

"Waiting too long is dangerous. When you have these kinds of symptoms people need to seek medical attention. A simple little local infection should not give you fever and chills — it should not make you shiver.

I've seen people get sepsis from an ingrown hair and you know how painful that is. If you get that really tender area around your nail bed or around your cuticle, and it's really tender and you start seeing the redness creep up your finger, you should get attention now. Antibiotics could be a lifesaver."

Nail Biting May Lead to Other Health Problems

While sepsis from biting your nails is extremely rare, the habit does increase your risk of experiencing other health conditions, including the following:

Nail infections

Exposure of the delicate skin underneath the nail increases the risk of bacteria or pathogens infecting the area. Bacteria may be transferred from your mouth into the broken area of skin. One of the most common forms of infection is called paronychia,14 causing swelling, pain, redness and pus.

This type of infection results from a disruption in the seal between the nail fold and the nail plate. The infection may be acute, or may become chronic. One of the most common causes of this type of infection is biting your cuticles.

Inflammation

Biting the nail, and consequently the skin around the nail, exposes the tissue to your saliva. While saliva aids in digestion by breaking down fats and other molecules, it can also damage and inflame the skin on your fingertips.15 In the same way licking your lips may cause them to become chapped, your saliva is actually corroding the skin around your nails.

Illness

Although your mouth is filled with bacteria, they aren't the same type of microorganisms residing on your fingers. Biting your nails gives microorganisms on your fingers access to your mouth and digestive system. A number of different pathogens and all kinds of debris get stuck under your nails.16

Herpetic whitlow

Up to 80 percent of U.S. adults have oral herpes resulting in cold sores.17 With a break in the skin, you may infect your fingers with the virus resulting in a fever. The first symptoms are usually painful burning and tingling in the infected fingertip.18 The infection usually takes four weeks to run its course, which can include painful liquid- or blood-filled sores.

Dental issues

Biting your nails interferes with the way your upper and lower teeth come together as you close your mouth. Chronic nail biting can shift your teeth out of their proper position and wear them prematurely. Nail biting also keeps the teeth in constant motion and puts additional stress on the front teeth, which can weaken them.19

Children with braces who also bite their nails have the additional risk of weakening the roots. According to the Academy of General Dentistry, nail-biting may result in up to $4,000 in additional dental bills over your lifetime.

Impaired quality of life

Although many times ignored in medical practices, one study demonstrated those unable to stop nail biting behavior had a higher number of involved fingernails and demonstrated impaired quality of life. Tension while trying to resist nail biting and nail eating behavior were independent variables. Those who bit their nails also reported higher levels of disapproval in social situations.20

Halitosis

Bacteria residing on your fingers or under your nails also may populate your mouth and trigger halitosis (bad breath).21

Ingesting toxins

If you paint your nails, most varnishes contain formaldehyde, a dangerous carcinogenic poison.22

Address the Underlying Trigger

Understanding the risks associated with nail biting may be enough to motivate you to learn strategies to help break the habit. One of those strategies is to understand the underlying trigger often associated with nail biting. Although it's not entirely clear why some individuals bite their nails, many consider it an impulse control issue that ultimately develops into a habit.23

Just like picking at your skin, twirling your hair or pulling out your hair, biting your nails may be one of many habits you develop when you become stressed and anxious.24 Another theory is people use nail biting when they're understimulated, such as being bored, or overstimulated, such as being anxious or stressed.25 In other words, both ends of the emotional spectrum may trigger the urge to bite.

In one study, individuals who had body-focused repetitive behaviors such as nail-biting were put into situations designed to trigger stress, relaxation, frustration or boredom.26 While the situations were artificial, the researchers found those with the highest urge to engage in their repetitive behavior were in the stress or the bored condition. Principal investigator Kieron O'Connor, Ph.D., explained:27

"We believe that individuals with these repetitive behaviors may be perfectionistic, meaning that they are unable to relax and perform tasks at a normal pace. They are therefore prone to frustration, impatience and dissatisfaction when they do not reach their goals. They also experience greater levels of boredom."

The researchers suggest those suffering from these behaviors would benefit from treatments designed to reduce frustration, boredom and modify their intense desire for perfectionism.28 Unfortunately, perfectionism and anxiety are often linked hand in hand as it is nearly impossible to be perfect on the outside without suffering anxiety about what other people believe about you on the inside. Perfectionism is not only a desire to do well but, rather, to do the perfect job or be the perfect person contributing greatly to anxiety.29

Anxiety is now 800 percent more prevalent than all forms of cancer.30 According to a report by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State University,31 anxiety and depression were the most common concerns among college students who sought counseling.32 Data from the National Institute of Mental Health33 suggests the prevalence of anxiety may be as high as 40 million, or nearly 18 percent of the population over the age of 18. This makes anxiety the most common mental illness in the nation.34

Break the Habit With Simple Strategies at Home

Nail biting often begins in childhood, peaks during adolescence and then slowly declines with age. Here are some simple and effective options that can help you to quit.

Short and trimmed

Keep your nails trimmed short as having less nail provides less tendency to bite.

Aversion

Use an unpleasant tasting substance on your fingertips or fingernails, such as vinegar, hot sauce or commercially available bitter tasting options. These help to remind you when you unconsciously lift finger to mouth. Another alternative is to wrap adhesive bandages around your fingertips. As your mouth comes in contact with the bandage, it reminds you of your unconscious habit while simultaneously preventing you from biting your nails.

Replace the habit

Replace the habit with another, such as knitting, or using a stress ball or Silly Putty to keep your hands busy and away from your mouth.

Identify triggers

Identify what triggers your behavior, such as the presence of hangnails, boredom, stress or anxiety. Knowing when you're inclined to bite your nails may help reduce the habit. Keeping a journal to identify those triggers may also help.

Behavioral therapy

Consider using behavioral therapy in order to help you break the habit and deal with triggering emotions.

Emotional Freedom Techniques

I also urge you to try the Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT), a powerful method to reduce the emotional impact of incidents triggering distress and anxiety. It's effective for regular stress management as well as for breaking addictions. EFT is a form of psychological acupressure, based on the same energy meridians used in traditional acupuncture to treat physical and emotional triggers for over 5,000 years.

In the video below, EFT practitioner Julie Schiffman demonstrates the technique you may apply to many problems. You'll find further instructions and photographs on my page devoted to EFT. While it is easy to learn and perform, you may want to seek a qualified therapist for serious or complex issues, which is especially important when addressing trauma-based stress or grief following a loss of a loved one.