What does nail biting do to your nails and the surrounding skin?
Dr. Lipner: Short term, nail biting can cause breaks and cuts in the skin around the nail, which may be painful. Open skin is an entry point for microorganisms; if bacteria gets in, you could get a staph infection, which may be mild, or it may form an abscess that needs oral antibiotics and drainage. Nail biting may also predispose to viruses.
It’s common for people who bite their nails to develop warts. Warts are difficult to treat in general, and warts around and under the nails are even harder to treat, especially when they get under the nail. It’s a long, painful process. To make matters worse, the warts may spread to the lip area, which is also not a pleasant treatment because it’s very sensitive skin.
If people bite long term, the nail itself becomes shorter over time. If you damage the nail bed (the area under the hard part of the nail) you start to see a shortening of the nail such that it only grows to a certain point. Unfortunately, that can be irreversible if the person has bitten their nails for many years.
What are some other habits and behaviors that are related to nail biting?
Dr. Ginsberg: About 25% of people who bite their nails also have an anxiety disorder. If you engage in nail biting as a primary or prominent coping mechanism, and you don’t learn other tools to help manage your emotions, then you might struggle with longer-term symptoms related to anxiety, mood, or executive functioning. It’s not that one causes the other, but it could be a sign that your mind and body are trying to internally soothe underlying feelings, or ‘split off’ intense feelings. Some studies also show that nail biting often runs higher in people with ADHD and tic disorders.
Dr. Lipner: The most common habits that I have seen that go hand in hand with nail biting are nail picking and nail rubbing. The skin near the cuticle is your nail growth center, or the nail matrix. If you rub or press that area too often, it will cause horizontal indentations in the nail that resemble a washboard. The nail will go grow thinner in that area each time you put pressure on the nail growth center. The good news is, when people stop the habit, the ridges will eventually grow out. The fingernail usually takes six months to replace itself.
Why is nail-biting so difficult to stop?
Dr. Ginsberg: Nail biting acts as a natural pacifier. It’s very hard to resist the urge to do something that brings immediate satisfaction or relief.
Nail biting occurs across a spectrum. Some might only bite when they are anxious at work or while watching a “nail-biting” thrilling movie or sports game; they might catch themselves doing it and stop. Others might experience an intense urge to constantly bite their nails throughout the day. Many think that if people bite their nails until they start to bleed or hurt, they would intuitively stop. But that’s not always the case in those who struggle with chronic nail biting. Even with pain, burning, or inflammation, they might feel a strong urge to continue and persist.