Growing up, I had always been told by my mother and teachers to stop biting my nails because it was bad for me. But why exactly is it bad? Sure, putting my unwashed, germy fingers in my mouth probably led to a few colds, but otherwise I figured this kinda gross childhood habit was harmless and something I’d grow out of.
Now, as a former (okay, on rare occasion) nail biter, I’ll be the first to admit that this unattractive habit is difficult to break. Whether chewing your nails is an adolescent obsession or you find yourself a first-time offender (let’s say you remove a hangnail with your teeth when no one is looking at the office), what begins as a one-time action can soon become a routine.
Onychophagia is an oral health and grooming disorder characterized by uncontrollable—you guessed it—nail biting. I can see readers of this story raising their eyebrows, thinking, I bite my nails, but it’s not out of control. Fair enough. Yet even an occasional nail biter can end up with painful, even serious side effects. Here are 7 super disgusting things that can happen when you chomp on your fingernails—plus tips for breaking the habit.
Nail biting can result in a nasty skin infection
New York City–based dermatologist Debra Jaliman, MD tells Health that biting your nails increases the risk of a bacterial infection under the nail, such as paronychia, which can cause redness, swelling, and nails filled with pus. The infection requires a course of oral antibiotics to cure. We say, no thanks.
Which might lead to arthritis or a disability
If paronychia or another bacterial infection gets out of control, it might infect the joints of the hand, according to David Katz, MD, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center. This can result in a condition called septic arthritis, which is hard to cure and may require surgery. “It can also lead to permanent disability, or even a systemic infection that can be life threatening,” says Dr. Katz. Extreme, sure, but totally possible.
The habit can cause nail deformities
“From chronic nail biting, you can damage the nail matrix (the tissue under the actual nail) and can have permanent nail deformities like ridges,” explains Dr. Jaliman. Ridges are deep horizontal wrinkles or trenches in the nail, a sign that something has caused the nail to stop growing temporarily—and sometimes even permanently.
And even transmit herpes to your fingers
Two of our experts stressed that if you are prone to cold sores on your mouth and you bite your nails, you can transmit a herpes infection to your fingers. It’s also easy for nail biters to pass warts on their hands to their lips and mouth. Well, our minds are blown.
Biting your nails can damage your teeth
Gigi Meinecke, DMD, a Maryland-based dentist with the Academy of General Dentistry, tells Health that chipped and broken front teeth are the most common problems she sees in patients who bite their nails. Chronic nail biting may not always result in a complete fracture. But the habit can split the tooth, creating a crack that picks up a dark, ugly stain over time and eventually decays. “Just as natural teeth can fracture from nail biting, porcelain veneers and crowns can suffer the same fate,” points out Dr. Meinecke.
Nail-biting can also affect your bite
Habitual biters normally use the same teeth over and over again when gnawing their nails, and this repeated pressure can act like an orthodontic appliance, moving and rotating teeth. It can completely changing a patient’s “bite,” confirms Dr. Meinecke. All the money spent and time wearing braces in childhood will be basically for nothing, nail biters.
Did we mention gum pain?
Occasionally, nail fragments can find themselves lodged into the gum tissue and cause painful inflammation and infection. It may be uncommon, but it’s not entirely unlikely, Dr. Meinecke warns.
How to stop biting your nails
If you’ve been struggling to kick the habit, here’s how to fight the urge to bite. Keep your nails trimmed very short so that there is less nail to chew. Invest in weekly manis, whether you hit the salon or pick up some polish and recruit your roommate to paint them at home.
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“Knowing your nails are freshly painted and that you don’t want to mess up the costly manicure may steer you away from the habit,” suggests Dr. Jaliman. Special bitter-tasting nail polishes make putting your fingers in your mouth something you’ll want to avoid. Hold an object, like a rubber band or stress ball, during long meetings or on your morning commute—or any other time you find yourself wanting to bite to pass the time.
Identifying your triggers helps a lot too. That could be a chipped nail you suddenly notice and start biting to make it look more even. A trigger could also be stress, anxiety, or just boredom. Pinpoint what’s really prompting the habit—then address the larger problem at hand.