Everyone copes with stress and anxiety differently. One of the more common coping mechanisms includes nail biting, also known in the medical field as onychophagia.
Nail biting is one of many nervous habits, and some may even do it without even realizing it – for example, when talking on the telephone or watching television. It is most common in children and adolescents between the ages of 10 and 18, as well as young adults between the ages of 19 and 22 and a very small percentage of older adults. Other nervous habits and repetitive behaviours aside from nail biting this include hair twisting or pulling, tooth grinding, and picking at the skin – all different methods individuals do in effort to relieve stress.
While nail biting might give you a temporary reprieve from your stressors and anxieties, Dr. Ali Ghahary also wants patients to be aware of the risks that nail biting can have upon your health.
Considering we touch a lot of things throughout the day – door handles, keyboards, and even toilets/sinks in public restrooms – our hands aren’t exactly the cleanliest parts of our body. While family physicians like Dr. Ali Ghahary urge patients to wash their hands regularly, even when done properly (at least 30 seconds with warm soap and water) that doesn’t mean your hands are one hundred percent free of bacteria. Your hands can still harbour a lot of nasty bugs and bacterium, including E.coli, salmonella, and MRSA. It’s also easier for nail biters to pick up a cold or flu virus.
Germs aren’t the only thing to consider when it comes to nail biting, however. Severe cases of nail biting can also lead to dental-related problems such as damage gum tissue or gum infections, worn tooth enamel, tooth loss, and jaw pain – also known as TMD or temporalmandibular disorder.
Acute infective paronychia can also occur due to nail biting and is caused by Staphylococcus auerus bacteria. With this condition, the area around the nail can become swollen, red and sore, and you may develop pus. In many cases it is treated with a course of medication, though in severe cases you may need to have the affected area drained.
Any nail biter knows that it can be a hard habit to break. The first thing you have to do when it comes to breaking any bad habit, says Dr. Ali Ghahary, is to commit to it. Write it down, stick post-it notes in areas around your house to serve as a reminder, and tell other people about it. That way you’re more forced to follow through. The second thing is to identify triggers. As mentioned, stress is a common cause of nail biting. By reducing the amount of stress and anxiety in your life, you’ll reduce your nail biting habit. In order to decrease your stress levels, Dr. Ghahary recommends finding a healthy habit to distract yourself with; exercise, for example, is a great way to calm your mind and keep you in shape. Patients may also benefit from cognitive behavioural therapy. Thirdly, simply stop. That’s easier said than done, sure, but once you have identified those triggers you’ll more than likely see a decrease in your nail biting.