Just about everyone has had at least one nail-biting moment in his or her life. Maybe you found yourself with nails between teeth while sitting through a boring class lecture, anticipating a career-changing meeting with your supervisor, or anxiously watching the fate of your favorite horror-movie heroine.
Biting fingernails is a habit that often starts in childhood. Studies show 60% of children and 45% of teenagers bite their nails. Nail biting becomes less common after age 18, but it can continue into adulthood. Many adults and children are often unaware they are biting their nails because doing so has become a habit.
The problem can range from a mild, occasional habit to an ongoing and more serious problem.
Why We Gnaw Our Nails
Stress and boredom are the main nail biting culprits for most people. The habit is often a way to ease anxiety or to keep at least one part of the body occupied while the mind lacks interest. Frustration and loneliness are additional emotional triggers that can lead to nail biting. Some research suggests genes may play a role.
Biting fingernails can also be a symptom of a psychological condition, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). People who wash their hands several times in a row or check the front door locks compulsively may also bite their nails as part of the same spectrum of behaviors. Many children who are nail biters also have other psychiatric disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), separation anxiety disorder, or bed-wetting.
Regular nail biting that causes severe damage to the nail and surrounding skin can be considered a form of self-mutilation, similar to cutting and related behaviors.
Problems With Regular Nail Biting
Nail biting has both physical and emotional consequences. Regularly biting your nails and cuticles can leave your fingers red and sore. The area of skin around your nails may bleed and become infected. Bacteria and viruses passed from your fingers to your face and mouth can make you vulnerable to infection.
Nail biting can also harm your teeth, leading to poorly aligned, weakened teeth.
The appearance of bitten-down fingernails can also be embarrassing, which can only add to anxiety and stress.
Nail Biting Treatment
Many children eventually grow out of nail biting. But for teens and adults who still struggle with the habit, some techniques have proven results.
- Coat your nails with a bitter-tasting nail biting polish. The nasty taste will discourage you from biting. You can also use a regular clear or colored nail polish to prevent nail biting. The same technique can work with your child.
- Keep nails trimmed short. You'll have less of a nail to bite.
- Get regular manicures. If you spend the money to keep your nails looking attractive, you'll be less likely to bite them.
- Use an alternate technique to manage your stress. Try yoga, meditation, deep breathing, or squeezing a stress ball to relax you.
- Put a rubber band around your wrist and snap it whenever you get the urge to bite your nails.
- If you've tried these techniques and nothing is working, wear gloves or put self-adhesive bandages on the tips of your fingers so your nails won't be accessible to bite.
Talk to your doctor or mental health professional if fingernail biting persists along with anxiety and stress. It could be a sign of a more serious psychological problem, including OCD, which can be treated with counseling, or medications.