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Last updated January 20, 2017 (originally published February 24, 2014)

By Louise Carr,  Associate Editor and Featured Columnist

[Health and fitness articles are reviewed by our panel of Registered
Nurses, Certified fitness trainers and other members of our Editorial

Is your embarrassing habit written all over your hands?
Nail biting is common and, according to many adult nail-
biters, incurable. Have you tried everything to stop biting
your nails? Bitten nails make your hands look unattractive
and give you an unprofessional, anxious appearance. How
can something so icky be so completely addictive? Are
nerves the only reason you bite your nails?  

All About Nail Biting

Chronic nail biting is also called "onychophagia" and it most
commonly begins in childhood and peaks in adolescence.

Experts predict that around 28 to 33 percent of children
aged seven to 10 bite their nails, and 19 to 29 percent of
young adults are nail gnawers. A 2014 study from Wroclaw
Medical University, Wroclaw, Poland put the prevalence at
46.9 percent across a population of young adults. Nail
biting then tapers off around the age of 30 – for many
people. For others, chronic nail biting remains a lifelong
habit – impossible to break.

Nail biting is a common stress-relieving habit.  You may bite
your nails when you are nervous or excited, or when you
are bored or waiting for something to happen. You may
have got to the stage where you bite your nails without
even realizing you’re doing it. After speaking on the phone
or watching your favorite TV series you realize those neatly
manicured points have disappeared.

Although most scientists view nail-biting as a minor
problem, some scientists view it as a mild form of "self-
injury", placing it at the mildest end a spectrum of self
harms. A 2014 study from the Head and Neck Surgery
Department of the Second University of Naples, Italy found
that any form of self-injury, no matter how slight, is
connected to unresolved psychiatric problems, perhaps
stemming from abuse.

Seems a bit extreme to view it this way but it's something
to consider, especially if you bite your nails to the point of

Why Do I Still Bite My Nails?

For such a common habit, there are still no concrete
conclusions about why some people bite their nails and
others do not.

Some studies point to psychological reasons like anxiety
and stress, while others identify behavioral and biochemical
factors that point to nail biting being akin to an obsessive-
compulsive disorder.

Many people seem to “learn” nail biting from their mother
or father but could there actually be a nail biting gene? In
many cases, no single condition is associated with nail
biting and multiple psychological factors are likely to be
involved, which makes the habit incredibly difficult to break.

Is Biting Your Nails Dangerous?

Nail biting may certainly look unattractive but is it damaging
your health? It could be. When bacteria from your mouth
burrow into the broken skin around your nails it causes
infection. And bacteria on your fingers can cause stomach
upsets and other nasties. In other cases, the constant
chewing permanently damages your nails, teeth and gums.
At one extreme, chronic nail biting is classified as self-
mutilation, according to a 1998 study from the University of
Tasmania, Hobart, Australia, because the level of self-injury
is great and the inability to stop is so strong.

[Editor's Note:

Biting your nails introduces bacteria into your mouth which
can then infect the parotid glands located on the sides of
your face. The resulting condition, called "parotitis" can
make your jaw swollen, and if untreated can lead to loss of

You may have tried all kinds of things to stop biting your
nails, from painting your nails with vile-tasting solutions to
wearing clothes and even sticking electrical tape over your
fingers. But how many of these methods actually work?

What are the proven natural remedies to stop nail biting?

Treating Nail Biting as a Psychological Disorder

The American Psychiatric Association now classifies
compulsive nail biting as an impulse control disorder – the
same category as obsessive compulsive disorder - and a
sign of underlying anxiety.  

OCD and nail biting have much in common. On one level
both take activities that are normal and non-dangerous and
ramp them up to the point of being excessive, causing
distress and stress when the behavior cannot be stopped.

A treatment for nail biting could, therefore, be the same as
a treatment for OCD. A 2009 study from Wroclaw Medical
University, Poland classifies nail biting as a spectrum of
obsessive compulsive disorder and states that severe nail
biting may be best treated with psychiatric intervention.

The Value of Non-Removable Reminders for Quitting Nail

Wearing a non-removable wristband or a bracelet that
makes a noise when you raise your hand to your mouth
may make it easier to stop biting your nails. A 2011 study
from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa,
Israel had 80 participants wear a wristband designed to
remind them of their resolution to quit nail biting.

This method was compared with an aversion-based
technique (painting a horrible-tasting solution on the nails)
and experts found that the reminder was as useful as the
aversion technique for stopping nail biting.

Treating Anxiety as a Cause of Nail Biting

According to 2014 research from Wroclaw Medical
University, Wroclaw, Poland more than half the participants
(65.7 percent) in the nail biting study reported feelings of
tension before nail biting occurred and 22.5 percent of the
population met criteria for anxiety disorder.

A 2012 study from the Institute of Medical Sciences,
Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi, India found that nail
biting is a sign of anxiety or other emotional disordersWhile
experts do not agree that anxiety is a definite trigger for
nail biting (in the 2014 study from Wroclaw Medical
University described above, there were still over 75 percent
of nail biters that didn’t meet criteria for anxiety disorder),
it may be a factor associated with the habit as many people
report biting their nails when they are feeling stressed or in
a situation like an exam or interview that makes them feel

A variety of alternative remedies and natural treatments are
recommended for treating anxiety including valerian and

Deal with Sleep Apnea as Cause of Nail Biting

A 2013 study from Pennsylvania State University College of
Medicine, Hershey, PA demonstrated a novel cause of nail
biting – sleep apnea.

When obstructive sleep apnea is untreated it can lead to
cognitive defects, sleepiness, and mood disturbances –
many of which can trigger nail biting. The scientists looked
at the case of a 47 year old quadriplegic man with severe
nail biting and finger mutilation  issues who was completely
cured when his severe obstructive sleep apnea was
effectively treated using a CPAP mask.

Competing Response Therapy for Stopping Nail Biting

Ever heard of "competing response therapy"?The
competing response therapy method of stopping nail biting
is when you perform a different action whenever you have
the urge to bite your nails, such as clapping your hands or
squeezing a stress ball.

In a 1992 study from the Department of Psychology and
Speech Pathology, Manchester Polytechnic, UK painting a
bitter substance on the nails was contrasted with the
competing response therapy.

The competing response method showed the best results.
In order for this therapy to work, however, the nail biter
must be continually aware of his or her nail gnawing, and
remember to set the response in action whenever the urge
to bite presents itself.

Use Aversion Therapy for Nail Biting

You may have thought about painting your nails with a
bitter-tasting substance to make it unpleasant to put your
fingers in your mouth, but does this method actually work?
A 1996 study from Parkside Hospital, Macclesfield, UK says
it does – aversion therapy in the form of a bitter nail
varnish resulted in significant improvements in nail length.

However, this form of treatment can backfire – many
children and adults grow to like the taste, or at least to
tolerate it enough to be able to keep biting their nails.

Other aversion therapies to try include keeping your nails
short or manicured, as well as keeping your hands so busy
there is little time for nail biting.

N-acetylcysteine Treats Nail Biting

N-acetylcysteine (NAC) is one supplement that may help
treat pathological nail biting, according to a 2013 study
from Hafez Hospital, Shiraz, Iran. Forty-two participants
took 800mg of NAC a day or placebo. The scientists found
that NAC decreased nail biting in children but only over the
short term. The trial also had a particularly high dropout
rate. Further studies are needed to build on these
preliminary results.


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Competing response therapy can stop
nail biting.