Nail biting: When is it more than just a bad habit?

Nail biting is a harmless habit, but could require medical care if done to the extreme.

Nail biting: When is it more than just a bad habit?
© Getty/ Hans Neleman
Nail biting: When is it more than just a bad habit?

Nail biting is mostly common among children, but many adults too find themselves unconsciously chewing away at their finger nails. Although for most people it is merely a harmless cosmetic problem, it could be a cause for medical concern when overdone.

Nail biting

Medically known as onychophagia, nail biting is closely related to mental disorders such as anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder, according to medicinenet.com. It is a type of body focused repetitive behaviour such as teeth grinding, hair pulling, nose picking, among others. Many studies have shown that nail biting could be a sign of psychiatric disorders, including:

  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): This condition is characterized by hyperactivity and impulsiveness and difficulty paying attention.
  • Oppositional defiant disorder: Exhibitions of defiance and disobedience towards people in positions of authority
  • Separation anxiety disorder: Deep anxiety brought on by the separation from particular people or pets.
  • Tourette syndrome: Involuntary movements and sounds.
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For most people, nail biting is merely a cosmetic problem. Getty/ whitemay

When is it a problem?

People who bite their nails often do it automatically; they don’t realize they’re doing, says Preventive medicine physician and wellness expert, Sandra Darling. She explains that because the behaviour usually have a soothing effect, people who have this habit do it as a coping mechanism.

Sometimes, a hangnail or nail imperfection could spur someone to excessively groom the nail. Their goal is to improve the look of the nail, but unfortunately, the nail often ends up looking worse. They don’t intend to self-harm — it’s a grooming behaviour run amok.

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For others, boredom, stress and difficulty concentrating can trigger nail biting. Whatever the cause might be, once this habit leads to physical harm and psychological distress, one should consider seeking medical attention. Darling listed these as some indications of a serious underlying condition:

  • Damage to the nail, cuticle or surrounding skin.
  • Bacterial infection.
  • Dental concerns.
  • Psychological damage (shame, low self-esteem, depression).
  • Relationship problems.

You might always want to keep your nails trim to keep you from chewing on them, or you could paint them with bitter nail polish. You should also pay attention to your triggers and learn to manage them. This can help reduce the frequency at which you bite your nails.

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