Nail Biting: Is it That Bad?   

Nail Biting: Is it That Bad?

Anxious woman, biting her nails and working in office and using smart phone
Clinical Contributors to this story:
Paul J. Condello, DMD

With all the things you touch throughout the day, doors, money, your phone, do you ever wonder how dirty your hands may be? More importantly, your fingernails are exponentially more dirty than your actual fingers, making them a hotspot for collecting germs that can make you sick. 

Many people are prone to nail biting as a common habit, but with what we know about all the dirt and grime that can collect in your nail beds, is it really that bad? 

Your teeth are the first victim

Patients with nail biting habits can quickly become a dentist’s nightmare. Those with a history of braces or who wear a retainer can risk reversing the work they have already had done by biting their nails. A nail biting habit can cause teeth to move, break, or chip and tooth enamel can splinter. 
“Biting nails creates a friction between the tooth and the nail that can cause your teeth to erode over time, which can lead to other serious problems down the road like gingivitis,” says dentist Paul J. Condello, DMD. “Nail biting can also cause the teeth to move, leading to gaps and a misalignment of the upper and lower teeth.”
Biting your nails poses a threat to your gums. 

  • Gum disease and gum recession can both be caused by nail biting as your fingernails transport bacteria into your mouth and can damage or infect your gum tissue. 
  • Another risk posed by nail biting is bad breath, as germs are constantly brought into your mouth. 

Nail biting can lead to chronic teeth grinding.
“Nail biting can increase the likelihood of developing a chronic teeth-grinding habit known as bruxism. Teeth grinding can lead to other oral health problems including headaches, jaw soreness, and TMJ syndrome,” adds Dr. Condello. “The friction of the teeth grinding against the nails can gradually wear away the protective enamel, or cause the teeth to crack or chip.”

Your nails are making you sick

Constantly bringing your nails into your mouth can bring E. coli, salmonella and the germs that cause the common cold as well as a plethora of others that may cause you to get sick. “Pathogens which transfer from your nails to the mouth during nail biting can lead to illness,” says Dr. Condello. 
A buildup of bacteria in your mouth can become more serious over time and cause other ailments such as infections in your stomach. 

You’re increasing your risk of infection

When you bite your nails, you are in danger of developing a hangnail, an ingrown nail, or an infection. 

  • Hangnails are tiny, torn pieces of skin that literally hang next to your nail and can lead to infection if not treated properly. Nail biters are typically tempted to bite off hangnails, which leaves more exposed skin to potentially be infected. 
  • Ingrown nails grow under the skin and can be very painful. Although these are much more common in toenails, nail biters should be weary of the pain and risk of infection that comes with an ingrown nail. If an ingrown nail occurs, it needs to be treated immediately to prevent worsening symptoms and serious infection. 
  • Nail infection, also known as paronychia, occurs when bacteria enters the broken skin near the cuticle and causes an infection. Nail biting creates cracks in the skin where such bacteria can enter and cause reddening, pus buildup, tenderness, and warmness to the area of the infected skin. If left untreated, paronychia can cause damage to the nail. In more severe cases, although rare, the infection can spread to the underlying bone or the finger or toe with the infected nail may need to be removed to prevent further spreading.

If you use nail polish, you could ingest toxins

Many nail products such as polishes and gels contain toxins that put nail biters who paint their nails at risk. 
Nail polishes often contain chemicals such as formaldehyde, toluene, and dibutyl phthalate which are toxic and can be harmful to the body if exposed to over long periods of time. Although these chemicals are more of a concern for nail technicians, chronic nail biters are at risk due to long-term exposure. 

How can I stop biting my nails?

Knowing the risks of sickness and infection that come with nail biting can be enough to encourage an attempt of quitting. Although it can be difficult to stop abruptly, there are many techniques that nail biters can try to help kick their habit:

  1. Use a polish with a bitter taste
    There are special nail polishes designed to taste poorly, which can help deter your habit by making the taste of your nails unbearable. There are safe options for these nail polishes that contain little to no chemicals typically found in regular nail polish. It is important to check the ingredients and find what feels best for you or your child to use.

  2. Get manicures often
    Frequent manicures can help keep your nails healthy and clean while giving you a good reason not to bite them: their price tag.

  3. Cut them often
    Keeping your nails at a shorter length will give you nothing to bite when your habit kicks in. Many nail biters are often tempted by the long length of their nails to begin with, so if there is nothing to chew then biting your nails will be less compelling.

  4. Form a healthier habit instead
    Most of the time, nail biting is a result of anxiety or boredom. Finding ways to occupy your mouth and nails can drastically decrease your need to bite them.

    Picking up a new hobby for your hands such as crocheting or drawing, or distracting your mouth with chewing gum or drinking water can help to stop the urge to bite your nails.

  5. Don’t be discouraged
    In most cases, habits cannot be broken immediately. Patience is important when trying to break a habit, and the best way to do so is often the slow, gradual process rather than stopping entirely at once.

    Test the different methods to see which works best for you, and try to find what triggers your nail biting urges to begin with. If you know what causes you to have the urge to bite your nails, you can develop a plan and work toward small goals over time. Eventually, you will not be inclined to bite anymore.

Although nail biting is not usually the cause for any serious health concerns, putting a stop to the habit can benefit you and your dental, nail, and overall health in the long run. 

Next Steps & Resources:

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.



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