What is nail biting also known as

Chew your fingernails

Onychophagia

Child and adolescent therapists estimate that around ten percent of all children and adolescents in Germany suffer from the fingernail-biting syndrome. Parents often forbid their children to chew their fingernails under threat of sanctions, which can make the problem worse. It is better if parents and educators research the causes and show the child constructive coping strategies. Because chewing your fingers is often an emotional outlet.

Not only children and adolescents chew their fingernails. The phenomenon can also often be observed in adults. Mostly those affected chew their nails due to an inner restlessness or tension and are under constant stress. But sometimes there are also banal causes such as “boredom”, as the social worker Gritli Bertram reports. However, parents should not react to biting their nails with penalties and sanctions. "Rather, it is important to research the causes and show understanding for the children," says Bertram. Punishments, on the other hand, "are completely contraindicated, they can possibly create even more stress for those affected" and thus increase fingernail biting, warns the social worker from Hanover.

Accompanying complaints

Fingernail biting is one of the body-related behavioral disorders. Not infrequently, chewing the nails is accompanied by other behavioral problems such as hair pulling or skin picking. The symptoms are both psychological and physical in nature. People who chronically bite their nails also often suffer from:

  • distressing feelings of discomfort or tension,
  • Relief or pleasure after biting your fingernails,
  • Feelings of shame, embarrassment, or guilt,
  • Tissue damage to fingers, nails and cuticles,
  • Mouth injuries,
  • Dental problems,
  • Abscesses,
  • Infections.

Fingernail biting occurs in early childhood

The foundation stone for the disorder is usually laid in toddler age. Oral fixation (oral phase) is still very pronounced in the first few years of life. In stressful situations, some children tend to bite their nails to find balance. What starts out as harmless chewing can later become a ritualized act in stressful moments. In conventional medicine, nail biting is also called “onychophagia”. “In many cases, nail biting is a harmless and time-limited habit that goes away on its own,” said Ulrich Gerth, chairman of the Federal Conference for Educational Advice (Bke) in Mainz recently. "It is important that parents do not get restless when the children bite their nails." Before counter-strategies are resorted to at the first signs, parents and educators should first observe the behavior of the children. The observers should ask themselves the following questions: When does the child bite their nails, in which periods of time and in which specific situations?

Nail biting is a stress and anger relief strategy

The actual causes of nail biting can be very diverse. There is often an inner tension. Sometimes there is also a lack of self-confidence behind chewing. Other reasons are more acute and can usually be found in the child's social environment. Recent studies show that almost every second child in Germany suffers from school stress. School problems, grade stress and bullying by classmates could also be a major cause. Children chew their fingers and thus distract themselves from anger and stress. “You get your mind off things,” says Bertram. In addition, chewing “relieves the strain and reduces inner unrest”.

Stop biting your nails together

If chewing continues for a long time, parents should contact the school and social workers. If it becomes clear that the child has acute emotional problems, parents should seek discussion with their child. The conversation should not be about chewing as such, but about the underlying problems of the child. It is best if parents try to develop a suitable solution strategy together with the child. If the problems subside, the children find it easier to stop biting their nails. Under no circumstances should children be put under any pressure. House arrest or a TV ban are completely wrong approaches and put children back into more stressful situations. A reward system is better, explains social worker Bertram. “There is a small gift for every week without fingernail biting. That could be an ice cream or a trip to the cinema together. ”A playful approach is also recommended:“ Take care of your child's nails with a bath or a great cream, ”recommends Gerth. When another millimeter of fingernail has been added, the child should receive praise and recognition. In particularly severe cases, however, children chew their fingernails down to their own flesh. At this point at the latest, outpatient therapy with a resident child and youth therapist is required.

Measures against chronic nail biting

In some cases, behavior therapy may be needed. Measures that can help are for example

  • Stress reduction through relaxation methods,
  • Coping with fear,
  • Keep nails clean and short,
  • Keep your hands and mouth busy (e.g. chewing gum or playing a musical instrument),
  • apply bitter varnish to the nails,
  • Suppress the stimulus to chew by doing another activity (e.g. kneading a stress ball).

Risks of nail biting

The nails are formed in the nail bed. As long as this remains intact, nail biting is unlikely to cause permanent damage to the fingernails. However, there are several health risks associated with constant nail biting. For example, chewing causes small skin injuries through which pathogens can penetrate. At the same time, the hands are often brought to the mouth, which allows bacteria and viruses to enter the mouth from the fingers. Overall, this increases the risk of infectious diseases. In addition, permanent damage to the teeth can occur. (sb, vb)

Author and source information

This text complies with the requirements of specialist medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical professionals.

  • American Academy of Dermatology: How to stop biting your nails (accessed: September 27, 2019), aad.org
  • Pierre Halteh, Richard K. Scher, Shari R. Lipner: Onychophagia: A nail-biting conundrum for physicians, Journal of Dermatological Treatment, 2017, Volume 28, Issue 2, tandfonline.com
  • Lawrence E. Gibson: Does nail biting cause any long-term nail damage? Mayo Clinic (accessed: September 27, 2019), mayoclinic.org
  • Archana Singal, Deepashree Daulatabad: Nail tic disorders: Manifestations, pathogenesis and management, Indian Journal of Dermatology, Venereology and Leprology, 2017, http://www.ijdvl.com

Important NOTE:
This article is for general guidance only and is not intended to be used for self-diagnosis or self-treatment. He can not substitute a visit at the doctor.