Although unsanitary, chronic nail biting (onychophagia) isn't likely to cause long-term nail damage. However, the passing of harmful bacteria from your mouth to your skin and vice versa may lead to serious infections.
Nail biting typically begins in childhood and can continue through adulthood, and the side effects can be more than cosmetic. Repeated nail biting can make the skin around your nails feel sore, and it can damage the tissue that makes nails grow, resulting in abnormal-looking nails.
Nails are formed within the nail bed — just beneath where the U-shaped cuticles begin. As long as the nail bed remains intact, nail biting isn't likely to interfere with fingernail growth. In fact, some research suggests that nail biting might even promote faster nail growth.
Nail biting isn't without risks, however. For example, nail biting can:
- Damage the skin around the nail, increasing the risk of infection
- Increase the risk of colds and other infections by spreading germs from your fingers to your mouth
- Harm your teeth
If you're concerned about nail biting, consult your doctor or a mental health provider. To stop nail biting, he or she might suggest the following:
Keep your nails trimmed short
Having less nail provides less to bite and is less tempting.
Apply bitter-tasting nail polish to your nails
Available over-the-counter, this safe, but awful-tasting formula discourages many people from biting their nails.
Get regular manicures
Spending money to keep your nails looking attractive may make you less likely to bite them. Alternatively, you can also cover your nails with tape or stickers or wear gloves to prevent biting.
Replace the nail-biting habit with a good habit
When you feel like biting your nails, try playing with a stress ball or silly putty instead. This will help keep your hands busy and away from your mouth.
Identify your triggers
These could be physical triggers, such as the presence of hangnails, or other triggers, such as boredom, stress, or anxiety. By figuring out what causes you to bite your nails, you can figure out how to avoid these situations and develop a plan to stop. Just knowing when you’re inclined to bite may help solve the problem.
Try to gradually stop biting your nails
Some doctors recommend taking a gradual approach to break the habit. Try to stop biting one set of nails, such as your thumb nails, first. When that’s successful, eliminate your pinky nails, pointer nails, or even an entire hand. The goal is to get to the point where you no longer bite any of your nails.
Get Help from the Professionals
For some people, nail biting may be a sign of a more serious psychological or emotional problem and may require behavioral therapy. If you’ve repeatedly tried to quit and the problem persists, consult a psychiatrist or behavioral psychologist. If you bite your nails and develop a skin or nail infection, consult a board-certified dermatologist.