A Real Nail-Biter: Unsafe Decisions

By Krista Elliott

Biting your nails when nervous has long been a movie and TV trope, with the image of the nervous sports fan, interviewee, or expectant dad biting his nails while waiting for the results of the big event. 

Nail-biting, however, is a habit that tends to start long before such concerns make it onto the scene. Most nail-biters start in childhood, with 60 percent of kids biting their nails. As it turns out, the cause of habitual nail-biting usually falls under either stress or boredom. Children who bite their nails often do so as a way to relieve anxiety, especially if they lack other coping tools or techniques for these feelings. In this aspect, and also with the boredom-relieving aspect, nail-biting can be considered comparable to other childhood-onset physical habits like hair twirling, fidgeting, or pencil-chewing. 

So is nail-biting something to worry about? 

The Risks of Nail Biting

Nail biting may be comforting to those who do it, but it is definitely not a harmless habit. Aesthetic issues aside (how your nails look is your own business), there are some serious risks to a bad nail-biting habit. 

Bacteria: When you bite your nails (or nibble your hangnails), you're introducing bacteria from your hands into your mouth, and vice versa. If you break the skin on your fingers or bite far enough to expose any of the nail bed, not only does it hurt like the dickens (I've done this. Even the very air hurts when you bite your nails too far), but it leaves a wide-open path for bacteria, leaving you at risk for nasty nail infections. 

Tooth Damage: The constant wear and pressure from biting your nails can do serious damage to your teeth. Not only do they become worn down faster, but the pressure from nail biting can, over time, nudge your teeth out of alignment. In fact, the Academy of General Dentistry estimates that nail-biting can add up to $4,000 to your dental bills over your lifetime. 

How to Stop Biting Your Nails

Like any unconscious habit, nail-biting is a tricky one to break, but there are a few things that may help: 

  • Try to turn the unconscious into the conscious. Making a mental (or even a physical) note every time you notice yourself biting your nails can help make you more aware of the habit altogether, setting the stage for a decrease in mindless nibbling. 
  • Groom your nails. Nails that are short and tidy have no tempting jagged bits to bite on. Or, you can have gel nails applied, which are nigh well impossible to chew, and may stay intact long enough to get you out of the biting habit. 
  • Develop alternate ways of keeping your hands busy. Even a rubber band around the wrist that you snap when you feel like nail-biting is a healthier nervous habit than gnawing on your fingers. 
  • If you bite incessantly and have high levels of anxiety, speak to your health-care practitioner, as your habit may be a symptom of a more serious psychological issue. 

With these techniques, hopefully you'll nail your efforts to stop biting your nails.