Many people bite their nails at some point, especially as children. It’s a type of body-focused repetitive behavior that goes by the clinical name of onychophagia.
There’s a spectrum of nail biting. It can range from an occasional benign behavior to a deeply ingrained self-mutilative behavior.
Many people who begin biting their nails as children eventually outgrow the habit. For others, it becomes a lifelong habit that can be extremely difficult to quit.
Let’s take a closer look at why people bite their nails, how to change the behavior, and when it’s time to see a doctor.
Nail biting typically begins in childhood and may accelerate during adolescence. It’s not always clear why someone develops this particular habit, but once it starts, it can be difficult to manage.
Impatience, frustration, boredom
Once nail biting becomes a habit, it can become your go-to behavior when you’re waiting around, frustrated, or just plain bored. It’s something you do to keep yourself occupied.
Sometimes, it’s just an absentminded tendency rather than a conscious choice during moments of intense concentration. You might not be aware that you’re biting your nails while trying to work out a problem.
Biting your nails can be a nervous habit, possibly an effort to find temporary relief from stress and anxiety.
Emotional or psychological problems
Nail biting can be associated with mental health conditions, such as:
- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- major depressive disorder (MDD)
- obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- oppositional defiant disorder
- separation anxiety disorder
- Tourette syndrome
Not everyone with these disorders bites their nails. By the same token, biting your nails doesn’t mean you have a psychological disorder.
Nail biting can include biting the nail, the cuticle, and tissue around the nail. Most nail biters don’t develop long-term damage, but it can happen.
Beyond soreness of the nails and surrounding skin, side effects can include:
- abnormal-looking nails
- fungal infections of the nail plate and surrounding skin
- illness due to passing bacteria and viruses from your fingers to your face and mouth
- harm to teeth such as chipping, misalignment, and dental resorption
- temporomandibular joint pain and dysfunction
In addition, habits like swallowing bitten-off nails can increase the risk of stomach and intestinal infections.
To be successful, you have to want to make the change. Habits don’t form overnight, and it can take time and patience to break them.
If your first attempt to stop biting your nails doesn’t work, you can try other methods. It may take a combination of things to help you completely break the habit, but even cutting down on frequency can be helpful.
Trim or manicure your nails often
Long nails may be hard to resist, so keeping them trimmed is a good idea. Set a particular day and time every week for your trim, and take care of hangnails and ragged edges so you’re not tempted to bite them.
Another option is to get regular professional manicures. Spending the money and knowing that someone is going to check your nails soon may keep you from reverting to the habit.
Choose only licensed salons and manicurists who properly sterilize tools, so as to prevent fungal nail infection.
Coat nails with bitter polish
There are plenty of people out there who struggle with nail biting. That’s why there are nail polishes designed to help you stop. They won’t hurt you if you do put your nails in your mouth, but the bitter taste may give you second thoughts.
You can buy them wherever you buy nail polish, or you can speak with a manicurist or dermatologist for more ideas along this line.
Cover your nails
You can try wearing gloves, but that’s not always practical. Some people put tape, stickers, or bandages on their fingernails to remind them not to bite.
Identify and treat your triggers
What makes you bite your nails? If you can figure out what triggers this behavior, you can work on managing those triggers. Just identifying those things that get you biting may be enough to serve as a reminder not to do it.
Replace the habit
You can replace a habit you don’t like with one that’s more tolerable. While you can try chewing gum, that can lead to dental or jaw problems if overdone.
Keeping your hands busy is a good way to keep them out of your mouth. Consider using something like a fidget device, stress ball, or silly putty to keep your hands occupied.
Make gradual changes
Some people quit smoking by gradually cutting down on the number of cigarettes per day. You can do something similar with nail biting.
Start by choosing one finger that you won’t put in your mouth. Stick with that one finger until it becomes a habit and the nail begins to look healthier.
Then choose another finger and continue on as long as it takes until you’re down to a single finger. Slowly back off that finger until you completely break the habit.
If you can’t completely break the habit, at least you can limit the number of fingers involved.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
In cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a therapist will help you identify unhelpful behavior patterns and replace them with different behaviors.
There’s usually a set number of sessions and a plan of action. CBT can be quite effective. Some researchers call it the current “gold standard” of psychotherapy.
Mild nail biting doesn’t require medical treatment. But you should make an appointment with your doctor if you experience:
- ingrown nails
- skin or nail infection
- nail discoloration
- curled nails
- bleeding around the nails
- swelling or pain around the nails
- nails that have stopped growing
- thinning or thickening of the nails
- nails separating from surrounding skin
If you have tried repeatedly to quit but can’t, or you’re dealing with stress or anxiety, consider seeing a mental health provider. Addressing the source of the problem may help you change the behavior.
Nail biting is a repetitive behavior that ranges from mild to severe. It usually starts in childhood. While some people outgrow it, it can become a lifelong habit.
Most of the time, nail biting is a harmless cosmetic problem that doesn’t require medical care. But severe nail biting can lead to infection, dental problems, and other issues that need to be treated.
There are some strategies that can help you stop biting your nails. Figuring out the cause is helpful, though it’s not always clear. If you’ve tried and can’t break the pattern, CBT is an effective tool for changing behavior patterns.