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
behavior 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 between the ages
    of 10 and 18 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
behaviors (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 behavior 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, such as CONTROL-IT or
    Thum, on your nails. 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 colored 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

ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP – Emergency Medicine
Adam Husney, MD – Family Medicine
Martin J. Gabica, MD – Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Kathleen Romito, MD – Family Medicine

Current as ofOctober 5, 2017