Most people find it tempting to pick at scabs on their skin, especially when they’re dry, peeling at the edges, or beginning to fall off. It might seem harmless, but picking at scabs can increase your risk of developing a skin infection and scarring.

For others, scab picking may be part of an underlying condition called dermatillomania, a condition that’s somewhat similar to obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Scabs might not seem important, but they play a crucial role in protecting wounds against infections. Beneath the scab, your body is repairing damaged skin and blood vessels. The area under a scab also contains white blood cells, which help to destroy any germs in the wound. They also draw out any old blood and dead skin cells that are still in the wound.

When you pick off a scab, you leave the wound underneath it vulnerable to infection. You also increase the amount of time it’ll take for the wound to completely heal. Repeatedly picking off scabs can also result in long-term scarring.

Dermatillomania is sometimes referred to as skin-picking disorder or excoriation disorder. Its main symptom is an uncontrollable urge to pick at a certain part of your body.

Common targets of picking include

  • nails
  • cuticles
  • acne or other bumps on the skin
  • scalp
  • scabs

People with dermatillomania tend to feel a strong sense of anxiety or stress that’s only alleviated by picking at something. For many, picking provides an intense sensation of relief or satisfaction.

Keep in mind that picking isn’t always a conscious behavior. Some people with dermatillomania do it without even realizing it.

Over time, picking can lead to open sores and scabbing, which provides more things to pick. These visible marks can also leave people feeling self-conscious, which can contribute to anxiety. This creates a cycle of behavior that can be very hard to break.

If you have the occasional urge to pick at a scab, it doesn’t always mean you have dermatillomania. However, if you find that you want to stop picking at scabs but seem unable to do so, you may be experiencing this disorder.

The next time you find yourself picking at a scab, try to take a moment to assess how you’re feeling. Do you feel stressed, anxious, or on edge? How do you feel while you’re picking at the scab? What about afterward?

It might be helpful to keep track of these feelings and urges on paper. If you find that your picking is usually triggered by some kind of stress or brings on a sense of relief, you may have dermatillomania.

There are some things you can try on your own to break the habit of picking at your scabs. Most of these focus on keeping your hands and mind busy.

The next timed you feel the urge to pick or find yourself unconsciously picking, try:

  • popping bubble wrap
  • drawing or writing
  • reading
  • going for a quick walk around the block
  • meditating
  • using fidget cubes or spinners
  • squeezing a stress ball
  • talking to a close friend or family member about what you’re feeling in that moment

There are also things you can do to reduce the temptation to pick, such as:

  • making a conscious effort to protect your skin from minor cuts and scabs whenever possible
  • throwing away tweezers or other tools you might use to pick at scabs
  • placing lotion on scabs to relieve itching
  • placing bandage over the scab (but try to let it air out while you sleep)
  • wearing clothing that covers the scab

The methods above don’t work for everyone. If you’re finding it hard to stop picking, consider seeking help from a therapist. Many people find relief through cognitive behavioral therapy. This type of behavioral therapy helps to rewire your thought patterns and behaviors.

You can also make an appointment with a doctor to talk about medication options. Antidepressants can help to manage underlying anxiety issues.

If you’re concerned about the cost of treatment, consider reaching out to any local universities. Some psychology programs offer free or low-cost therapy with graduate students. You can also ask potential therapists if they have a sliding scale for their fees, which will allow you to pay what you can. This is a pretty common conversation, so don’t feel uncomfortable bringing it up.

You should also seek treatment if you picked off a scab and the wound looks infected.

Signs of an infection include:

  • redness and inflammation
  • blistering
  • fluid or pus around the wound
  • a yellow-colored crust over the wound
  • a wound that doesn’t start to heal within 10 days

Seek emergency treatment if you notice:

  • warm skin around the wound
  • fever and chills
  • a red streak on the skin near your wound

These are all signs of cellulitis, a severe infection that can be fatal if not treated right away.

Scars can be very hard to completely remove. But there are a few things you can do to reduce their appearance.

When you notice a scar starting to appear, you can try putting some silicone gel on it daily. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t see immediate results. Most people don’t notice improvement until they’ve used the gel for several months, and it hasn’t been shown to work well for all types of scars. You can buy silicone gel on Amazon.

You can also talk to a dermatologist about laser therapy for scars. Also note that it can take up to six months to know if a scar is likely to be permanent.

Occasionally picking at a scab usually isn’t a huge deal, though it does increase your risk of developing an infection or lingering scar. But if you find that you’re having a hard time resisting the urge to pick at a scab, there may be a psychological component to your picking. There are many ways to manage dermatillomania, but you might have to try a few things before you find what works for you.

If you’re not sure where to start, consider joining a support group to connect with others living with dermatillomania. The TLC Foundation lists both in-person and online support groups.

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