Nail biting typically starts in childhood and continues into adulthood. While nail biting is a common problem, it can be caused by a number of behaviors that range from stress to anxiety.
Although the behavior may seem simple to stop, many individuals who have attempted to break the habit have not succeeded. They instead experience not only unsightly nails, but also damage to the skin and soreness surrounding the nail bed.
This article will discuss the behaviors that lead to nail biting, from anxiety to mental health disorders, how to refrain from biting your nails, and when to see a healthcare provider.
What Causes Nail Biting?
Nail biting, or onychophagia, is also known as pathological grooming. It can also be a behavior of certain obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCDs) like trichtotillomania (hair pulling) and dermatillomania (skin pricking). Nail biting can also be caused by stress and anxiety, boredom, and mental health disorders.
Stress and Anxiety
The behaviors stated above may be triggered by events that cause stress and anxiety. Unlike physical reactions, like a pounding heart or hyperventilating, which can result in the fight-or-flight response, nail biting is a way of releasing stress and anxiety because it feels good.
A Scientific American article published in 2015 states that stress is not the only reason for compulsion disorders, but, rather, boredom and frustration can also trigger the need to do something instead of nothing. This type of behavior can be brought on by a perfectionist personality.
Mental Health Disorders
The fifth edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) notes that nail biting is a body-focused repetitive behavior disorder listed under obsessive-compulsive disorder.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, obsessive-compulsive disorder is when an individual has “unwanted thoughts, ideas, or sensations (obsessions) that make them driven to do something repetitively (compulsions).”
Behaviors of this type can interrupt a person’s day-to-day activities and personal interactions. Not acting out on the compulsive behavior causes more distress than relief. In the case of compulsive nail biting, it feels good and releases stress.
Other disorders the nail biter may have include:
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Oppositional defiant disorder (when an individual is defiant and disobedient towards people of authority)
- Separation anxiety disorder
- Tourette’s syndrome
Some studies indicate that if you’re a nail biter it’s most likely that you picked up the habit from your parents, not by observation, but from genetics.
If the nail biter has obsessive-compulsive disorder, family aggregation studies indicate that the disorder is genetic; results from twin studies show that the familiality is in part because of genetic factors. To date, only three genome-wide linkage studies have been completed that suggest some evidence, but don’t provide definitive results.
Side Effects and Risks of Nail Biting
Nail biting has many physical and psychological side effects, which include:
- Damage to the cuticle and surrounding skin; redness and soreness
- Possible bacterial infection in your nail beds and mouth
- Dental issues
- Psychological issues with self-esteem, shame, depression
- Problems with relationships
Long-term, habitual nail biting can disrupt normal nail growth and result in deformed nails. In some cases, extreme nail biting down to the nub can be caused by obsessive-compulsive disorder.
How to Stop Nail Biting
To break the nail-biting habit or to treat long-term nail biting that results from psychological disorders, several solutions from cutting nails short to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may help.
Cut Them Short
The easiest solution is to simply cut your nails short, which may motivate you to not bite them. However, if you often experience stress and anxiety, or have obsessive-compulsive disorder, even short nails may not deter you from biting them or chewing on cuticles or hangnails.
Get a Manicure or Trim Often
Investing the time and expense in a manicure or trimming nails often may be enough incentive to not bite your nails. Another option is to wear gloves to prevent nail biting.
Keep Your Hands Busy
An easy and efficient way to keep your fingers away from your mouth is to keep your hands busy. There are many creative activities you can try to distract you from nail biting, such as:
- Clay work
Use Bitter Nail Polish
You can find bitter-tasting nail polish at a local pharmacy and apply it to your nails. If you’re unable to locate this type of nail polish, another option is to spray a bitter apple mixture on your hands. You can make it using white vinegar, apple cider vinegar, and water.
Manage Stress and Anxiety
One method to stop nail biting is to learn the triggers that make you anxious, stressed, or bored. If you’re unable to stop, and nail biting becomes more and more habitual, talk to your healthcare provider to get a referral to a therapist. With therapy, you can learn cognitive behavioral therapy methods to identify or modify your behavior. If you have a disorder, you may need to be treated appropriately with medication.
When to See a Healthcare Provider
An occasional nibble on your nails may not require a visit to the doctor, but if your nail beds are infected and the infection has spread to your mouth, you will need to see a healthcare provider to be treated with antibiotics. If your nail biting has reached a point that you can’t stop and it is affecting your self-esteem and relationships, ask for a referral to see a therapist.
Nail biting usually starts in childhood and may continue into adulthood. Although a common habit, nail biting can be triggered by stress and anxiety, but it may also be an obsessive-compulsive disorder. To stop the habit, you may take benign approaches like keeping your hands busy, but if you feel your habit is out of control, you may need to consider therapy to determine what is triggering the activity.
A Word From Verywell
Although nail biting is not a life-threatening habit, it can cause distress. If you are a habitual nail biter and want to stop, consider the options offered above. If your habit is causing you even more stress, speak to your healthcare provider for a referral to see a therapist.
Frequently Asked Questions
It can be deemed as an obsessive-compulsive disorder according the American Psychiatric Association.
It depends. If you bite your nails on occasion, they will grow back normally. But if you’re a habitual nail biter, you can get infections on the nail bed and, ultimately, your nails may grow back abnormally.
Being under a great deal of stress and anxiety may lead to persistent nail biting. Learn the triggers that lead to nail biting and take appropriate measures to stop the habit. These may include keeping your hands busy, using bitter nail polish, or trimming your nails short.