Nail biting, also known as onychophagia, is one of the most common habits among various age groups, including children, teens and young adults. Nail biting is generally triggered by stress, excitement, boredom or inactivity. It can also be a learned behavior from family members. Nail biting is the most common of the typical “nervous habits,” along with thumb sucking, hair pulling or twisting, tooth grinding or picking at one’s skin.
What you may not know about nail biting:
- About half of all children between the ages of 10 and 18 have been nail biters at one time or another.
- Nail biting occurs most often during puberty.
- Boys bite their nails more often than girls after the age of 10.
- Most people stop biting their nails by age 30.
- Experts estimate that about 30% of children and about 15% of adults chew their nails.
Often this habit decreases with age.
That being said, nail biting is unhealthy for your teeth. Here’s why:
- It’s unsanitary. Fingernails are home to bacteria and germs. Your nails are almost twice as dirty as your fingers. Hence, biting your nails is just asking for germs and bacteria. Nail biting is related to dental problems such as gingival injury. Nail biting can also transfer pinworms or bacteria buried under the surface of the nail to your mouth. When bitten-off nails are swallowed, stomach problems can develop.
- Something to chew on. Nail biting causes your teeth to constantly be chewing, wearing them down faster than a non-nail biter, while putting a large amount of stress on your front teeth. This can then contribute to malocclusion of the anterior teeth.
- Braces don’t love it either. If you’re in orthodontic treatment, braces already put pressure on teeth, and nail biting adds unnecessary additional pressure, further stressing your teeth and weakening roots.
- It can be costly. Nail biting can result in up to $4,000 in additional dental bills over a lifetime, according to the Academy of General Dentistry (AGD).
What can you do about it?
Now that you know how harmful and costly nail biting can be, it’s time to take action to break your nail biting habit.
- Try to be conscious of your fingernails and to keep them looking good—this will help you resist the temptation.
- Apply clear, bitter-tasting nail polish to the nails. The bitter flavor discourages nail biting.
- Mouth guards can help prevent nail biting.
If all else fails, experts suggest thinking about when and why you chew your nails. Understanding the triggers can help you find a solution and stop the habit. Some nail biters have even found behavioral therapy an effective means to stop nail biting.