Health hazard: Why we bite our nails

Biting nails can be comforting during a stressful situation, or might calm you down in the process of engaging in a difficult task.

Nail-biting has long been considered a bad habit at best and a form of addiction at worst. Despite the social and potential health consequences, over 30 per cent of people do it. There are four main reasons for why people bite their nails:

It feels good | According to Tracy Foose, a professor of Psychology at UCSF School of Medicine, it feels ‘relaxing’ to bite one’s nails. Because of the unconscious enjoyment people get from it, biting nails can be comforting during a stressful situation, or might calm you down in the process of engaging in a difficult task.

You’re a perfectionist | Linked to the idea of comfort, research in the Journal of Behaviour Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry found that those who get irritable or angry quickly tended to be calmed by biting nails.

Genetic predisposition | One research paper argued that there may be a link between Onychophagia — habitual biting of the nails — and family history. Indeed, Shari Lipner, a professor at Weill Cornell Medicine argues that a third of nail biters have a member of their family who bites their nails also.

It’s a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) | The last point is disputed. In 2012, the American Psychiatry Association listed nail-biting as a form of OCD (along with skin picking and hair pulling). However a large body of psychiatrists disagree with the decision, calling it an over-simplification of the disorder. Foose said, “As an anxiety specialist, I think that was an overreach for lumping disorders.”

Why you should probably stop:It’s expensive | Biting your nails isn’t only bad for you teeth and jaw; it can also result in over £3,000 in dental bills over your lifetime.

It can spread infection | Your hands are the recipients of hundreds of thousands of bacteria every hour — think of all the dirty surfaces you touch throughout the day. Now imagine putting your fingers in your mouth. The transferal of bacteria can cause infections, both in your mouth and your nails.

It’s socially unattractive | This is the point that brought you to this article — you know it’s unattractive. The problem for many nail-biters is how to stop — there’s bitter nail varnish, wearing gloves and taping your nails. Ultimately, you must look to why you bite your nails — if it is indeed for comfort, perhaps the best way to stop is to replace it with something else that has the same effect.


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