What is nail-biting?

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Nail-biting in children: Overview

Nail-biting is common in school-age children and teens. It is most common during puberty.

You may notice that your child bites their nails more when stressed. Or your child may do it because another person in the family does it too.

Nail-biting can make your child's fingertips red and sore and make the cuticles bleed. It can also raise your child's risk for nail and mouth infections. And any germs that get in your child's mouth can increase your child's chances of getting sick.

Long-term nail-biting can also prevent normal nail growth. This can cause nails that are an odd shape.

You can help your child stop biting their nails. First, try to find out why your child does it. Talk with your child or their teachers about possible stress at school. Then let your child help choose how to treat it. This can make treatment more successful.

How can you care for nail-biting in children?

  • Keep your child's nails trimmed and filed. Keep your child's cuticles moisturized. Short, smooth nails and soft cuticles are less tempting to bite.
  • Be supportive and loving. Punishing, nagging, or making your child feel embarrassed may make it worse.
  • If your child bites their nails because of anxiety or stress, find ways to help your child feel better. For example, encourage physical activity. And give your child a lot of praise and support.
  • For older children, paint a bad-tasting polish on your child's nails. The bad taste will remind your child to stop when the biting starts.
  • Encourage your child to replace nail-biting with another activity. Your child might try drawing, writing, making a fist, or sitting on their hands.
  • Help your child write down when they bite their nails. This can make your child more aware of when it happens. That can help stop the habit.
  • Have your child wear gloves, adhesive bandages, or colored stickers on their nails. These can be reminders not to bite.

Who bites their nails?

People of all ages bite their nails. Many adults and children bite their nails at least once in a while. Some people bite their nails often enough to cause problems, like feeling ashamed. Some people have trouble stopping.

Nail-biting may occur with other body-focused repetitive behaviors (BFRB) such as hair-pulling or skin-picking.

What problems can develop from nail-biting?

Nail-biting can cause your fingertips to be red and sore and your cuticles to bleed. Nail-biting also increases your risk for infections around your nail beds and in your mouth.

Long-term nail-biting can also interfere with normal nail growth and cause deformed nails.

In rare cases, nail-biting may be a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD symptoms are usually treated with medicines.

What is nail-biting?

Nail-biting (onychophagia) is a common stress-relieving habit. You may bite your nails in times of stress or excitement, or in times of boredom or inactivity. It can also be a learned behavior from family members. Nail-biting is common. So are other habits like thumb-sucking, nose-picking, hair-twisting or -pulling, tooth-grinding, and picking at skin.

You may bite your nails without realizing you are doing it. You might be involved in another activity, such as reading, watching television, or talking on the phone, and bite your nails without thinking about it.

Nail-biting includes biting the cuticle and soft tissue surrounding the nail as well as biting the nail itself.

Nail-biting in children: When to call

Watch closely for changes in your child's health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • Your child does not get better as expected.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.