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Nail-Biting

Topic Overview

Nail-biting (onychophagia) is a common stress-relieving habit. You may bite your nails in times of stress or excitement, or in times of boredom or inactivity. It can also be a learned behaviour from family members. Nail-biting is the most common of the typical "nervous habits," which include thumb-sucking, nose-picking, hair-twisting or -pulling, tooth-grinding, and picking at skin.

You may bite your nails without realizing you are doing it. You might be involved in another activity, such as reading, watching television, or talking on the phone, and bite your nails without thinking about it.

Nail-biting includes biting the cuticle and soft tissue surrounding the nail as well as biting the nail itself.

Who bites their nails?

People of all ages bite their nails.

  • About half of all children ages 10 to 18 years bite their nails at one time or another. Nail-biting occurs most often during puberty.
  • Some young adults, ages 18 to 22 years, bite their nails.
  • Only a small number of other adults bite their nails. Most people stop biting their nails on their own by age 30.
  • Boys bite their nails more often than girls after age 10.

Nail-biting may occur with other body-focused repetitive behaviours (BFRB) such as hair-pulling or skin-picking.

What treatments are available for nail-biting?

Several treatment measures may help you stop biting your nails. Some focus on behaviour changes and some focus on physical barriers to nail-biting.

  • Keep your nails trimmed and filed. Taking care of your nails can help reduce your nail-biting habit and encourage you to keep your nails attractive.
  • Have a manicure regularly or use nail polish. Men can use a clear polish. Wearing artificial nails may stop you from biting your nails and protect them as they grow out.
  • Try stress-management techniques if you bite your nails because you are anxious or stressed.
  • Paint a bitter-tasting polish on your nails. There are several products available at drugstores. The awful taste will remind you to stop every time you start to bite your nails.
  • Try substituting another activity, such as drawing or writing or squeezing a stress ball or Silly Putty, when you find yourself biting your nails. If you keep a record of nail-biting, you will become more aware of the times when you bite your nails and be able to stop the habit.
  • Wear gloves, adhesive bandages, or coloured stickers whenever possible to remind you not to bite your nails.
  • Snap a rubber band on the inside of your wrist when you start to bite your nails so you have a negative physical response to nail-biting.

Children may bite their nails more often when they are having problems at school or with friends. Talk with your child or his or her teacher about any new stress at school. Children are more likely to stop biting their nails when they understand what may trigger it. It is also important for your child to help choose a treatment method so he or she can use the treatment successfully.

What problems can develop from nail-biting?

Nail-biting can cause your fingertips to be red and sore and your cuticles to bleed. Nail-biting also increases your risk for infections around your nail beds and in your mouth.

Long-term nail-biting can also interfere with normal nail growth and cause deformed nails.

In rare cases, nail-biting may be a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD symptoms are usually treated with medicines.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer H. Michael O'Connor, MD - Emergency Medicine
Last Revised December 10, 2012
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