Do you nibble away at your nails when you get stressed or bored? Do you hide your hands around others, embarrassed by the condition of your nails?
You’re not alone.
We all have little quirks, but one habit many people struggle to break is chronic nail-biting, also known as onychophagia.
Onychophagia is a type of body-focused repetitive behavior (BFRB) that involves damage to the nails due to habitual biting. People with BFRB may also have other repetitive behaviors like skin picking (excoriation disorder) or hair pulling (trichotillomania).
Whatever the reason for nail biting, nibbling or chewing them can have some serious consequences for your overall health and well-being.
We’ll explore why people bite their nails, discuss its effects on your physical, emotional and psychological health and provide six practical tips to help you kick the nail-biting habit once and for all.
Why do people bite their nails?
Nail biting is a common habit that affects children and adults.
“It typically starts in early childhood and can continue into adulthood,” said Varun Monga, MD, a psychiatrist with Banner Health. “The exact cause is not fully understood, but there can be multiple reasons.”
Dr. Monga shared five of the most common reasons for nail biting:
- Imitation and learned behavior. Nail biting can be learned by observing and imitating others, especially if you have a family member who is a nail-biter. “Children are particularly susceptible to imitating behaviors they see around them,” Dr. Monga said.
- Stress, anxiety or boredom. Nail biting is often associated with stress, anxiety, boredom or nervousness. “When you experience high levels of stress and anxiety, you may engage in BFRBs like nail biting as a way to cope or relieve tension and provide temporary comfort,” Dr. Monga said.
- Genetic and biological factors. Believe it or not, this can be a habit passed down through your family tree. “Studies have found that people are more likely to bite their nails if they have a family history of the habit,” Dr. Monga said. “Certain neurotransmitters and brain chemistry imbalances may cause nail biting too.”
- Nail issues or discomfort. Irregularities in the nails, such as rough edges, hangnails or ingrown nails, can trigger the habit of nail biting. Conditions like dermatitis or other nail disorders may make you more prone to biting due to discomfort or itching.
- Psychological factors. If you have a perfectionist nature or display obsessive-compulsive traits, you may use nail-biting as a form of self-soothing or a way to maintain control.
“Onychophagia is also associated with various psychiatric conditions, like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), although not everyone diagnosed will bite their nails,” Dr. Monga said. “These behaviors and conditions are on a spectrum and will vary from person to person.”
Why is nail biting bad for you?
While nail biting may seem harmless, it can lead to a range of short-term and long-term issues, including:
- Dental problems: Biting your nails constantly can weaken your teeth and may even cause them to change position and chip, crack or break. Over time, it can also cause jaw problems.
- Nail infections and skin problems: Biting nails can damage the skin around the nail bed (cuticle) and create openings for bacterial and fungal infections. It can also cause your nails to stop growing the way they should, putting you at risk for hangnails and ingrown fingernails.
- Illnesses. Nail biting can affect hand hygiene, allowing dirt and bacteria to enter your mouth. This can increase your risk of getting sick from viruses like the stomach bug, cold, flu and COVID-19.
- Emotional and psychological problems: Research suggests that if you bite your nails, you may experience increased levels of stress, anxiety and even shame due to the habit. “Nail biting can become a vicious cycle, as the act itself can be both a symptom and a cause of heightened emotional distress,” Dr. Monga said.
Tips for nailing down your habit
Changing any habit can be difficult and take time. With the right plan and support, you may be able to stop biting your nails for good.
- Awareness and self-reflection. The first step in conquering any habit is to be aware of it. Take note of when and why you tend to bite your nails. Understanding your triggers can help you develop coping strategies to combat them.
- Find healthy alternatives. Keep a stress ball, fidget spinner, ring or small toy nearby to occupy your hands. Chew sugarless gum. Wear gloves. Experiment with different alternatives to find what works for you.
- Keep your nails manicured. Trim and shape your nails regularly to reduce the temptation to bite. Consider getting a professional manicure or applying bitter-tasting nail polish as a reminder and deterrent whenever you attempt to bite your nails.
- Practice stress management. Since stress is often a trigger, find healthy ways to manage stress. Engage in activities like exercise, deep breathing exercises, mindfulness or hobbies that relax you.
- Reward yourself. Celebrate your success, no matter how small. Set achievable goals and reward yourself when you reach them. Treat yourself to something you enjoy or engage in a favorite activity to reinforce positive behavior.
- Seek support. Don’t be afraid to reach out to friends and family for help. They can offer encouragement, accountability and helpful strategies to overcome the habit.
When should I get professional help?
If self-help techniques are ineffective, consider seeking assistance from a licensed behavioral health specialist or health care professional.
“They can help identify triggers and manage the emotional factors associated with nail-biting,” Dr. Monga said. “Some treatment strategies may include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), acceptance and commitment therapy and habit reversal training.”
Nail biting may be a tough habit to break, but you can overcome it with determination, awareness and the right strategies. Remember, quitting nail biting improves your nails’ health and appearance and positively impacts your emotional and psychological well-being.