Many people have the tendency to bite their fingernails, a condition known as Onychophagia which, according to the the American Psychiatric Association (APA)’s DSM-5 (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), is “compulsive and repetitive in nature”.

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According to the APA, a disorder is characterised as obsessive-compulsive when an individual has “unwanted thoughts, ideas, or sensations (obsessions) that make them driven to do something repetitively (compulsions).”

What causes nail biting?

Multiple factors can play a role; these range from genetics to underlying psychiatric conditions. “Nail-biting is frequently associated with anxiety, because the act of chewing on nails reportedly relieves stress, tension, or boredom. People who habitually bite their nails often report that they do so when they feel nervous, bored, lonely, or even hungry,” said Aishwarya Vichare, dietician, Bhatia Hospital Mumbai.

Is it a cause for concern?

Nail biting can lead to social and psychological complications like humiliation, emotional suffering, and social impairment, said Dr Vichare. “Physical complications like malformed nails, infection of the nail and surrounding soft tissue; increased risk of parasitic infections, stomach infections due to swallowing nail particles and dirt; pain in the temporomandibular (TMJ) joint or jaw joint, injury to the gums, paronychia, self-inflicted gingival injuries, secondary bacterial infections are also associated with nail biting,” he told indianexpress.com.

Cut your nails short to avoid biting them (Photo: Getty/Thinkstock)

Apart from creating a breeding ground for bacteria, fungus and viruses of all kinds that can cause an infection in the body and even on the skin, the habit also damages the nail, cuticle, and surrounding skin, said Dr Rinky Kapoor, consultant dermatologist, cosmetic dermatologist and dermato-surgeon, The Esthetic Clinics.

According to Dr Kapoor, chronic nail biting can lead to issues like ingrown nails, bleeding around the nails, swelling and pain around the cuticle area, thickening of nails and surrounding skin, no growth of nails, and nails becoming separate from the skin.

“It also harms the teeth, gums, and leads to tissue damage in the mouth,” added Dr Kapoor.

What can be done?

Various home measures such as using a mouth guard, painting the nails with a bitter nail polish, keeping the nails short or using the traditional remedy of applying bitter oil on nails are often used to get rid of this habit, said Dr Kapoor.

One can also use the following methods

*Keep the nails short and manicured so that the temptation is less.
*Try wearing gloves at night or when you are alone so that you cannot bite nails
*Identify the triggers
*Instead of chewing nails, replace the habit with chewing gum or fennel.

“There are many treatments available for onychophagia and for a permanent solution it is best to consult a doctor,” said Dr Kapoor.

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