Everyone has bitten their nails at one point in life. Turning that act into a habit, however, can be detrimental to your health. Biting nails may be caused by stress, boredom or a habit picked up during one's childhood. The American Psychiatric Association has classified nail biting as a form of obsessive compulsive disorder, a mental disorder which prompts the affected the person to regularly check things. An example is confirming if a door is locked or performing routines repeatedly.
Biting your nails occasionally is considered normal', but when you do it frequently such that it interferes with your daily activities, it is categorized as a psychiatric case. Nevertheless, the occasional nail biting affects your health.
Moses Okello Oyaro, a public health official, says people overlook the damaging effects of biting nails. Onycophagia (biting of nails) has adverse health effects aiding in disease transmission. Most human infections that are communicable (transmitted either from man to man, animal to man or a disease vector) can be also be spread through hand and mouth. The hand being the medium of transmission from the source to the mouth. According to Okello, many people who bite their nails are unaware of the underlying causes of infections that the hand is exposed to.
“Most enteric infections (infections that are caused by parasites living in the human intestine) are aided by human faecal matter. The infections are spread to man through faecal oral routes such as human waste to mouth through contaminated hands,” he adds. Faecal matter can be found in contaminated soil, water and surfaces such as toilet handles and flushing cistern handles. In public washrooms, people use and share toilet handles and water taps. Biting your nails after leaving the washrooms is a recipe for infections, such as Amoebic dysentery, cholera, typhoid and other diarrhoea related diseases in children such as Giardia Lamblia.
Nails are known to be good at harbouring dirt. Nails are more exposed and therefore easier to pick up germs with. This may lead to food poisoning when one touches or eats food laced with toxins; shigella and salmonella toxins.
Martha Misati, a Kenyan international student in Canada, says that she developed the habit of biting her nails during her childhood. Since then she has never stopped though lately, she struggles to avoid nail biting triggers.
“When I was younger I thought they tasted really good,” she confesses. Martha says she has improved, but the habit is sometimes triggered by stress.
“Whenever I’m in a stressful situation, I just find myself chewing my nails. I can’t help it, although I think I’m making progress since I used to chew them all the time.”
She reveals that she learnt about the dangers of biting nails through a friend.
“I came to know that three years ago when a friend advised me after seeing me biting my nails.”
Dr Lawrence Gibson of the Mayo Clinic notes:
“Nail biting damages the skin around the nail, increasing the risk of infection. It also increases the risk of colds and other infections by spreading germs from your fingers to your mouth.”
When you bite your nails, your cuticles break. The condition is known as Paronychia. As you chew your nails, it leads to swelling and formation of pus around them. The American Academy of Dermatology says bacterial infections caused by nail biting are one of the most common nail problems.
To keep the doctor away, specialists have formulated ways to help people with obsessive nail biting habits. Keeping a journal to help you identify your nail biting triggers such as stress and boredom then come up with ways to avoid the triggers. Wrapping your fingertips with band aids and keeping your hands busy with other activities such as knitting are also creative ways of avoiding nail biting.
To be safe, keep your nails well-manicured and trimmed. For serious cases of onycophagia, consider behavioural therapy, such as habit reversal training and applying unpleasant tasting substance on your fingertips, vinegar and hot sauce.
Now you know, biting your nails may soon send you to the doctor. It is one of the most overlooked causes of diseases today. The next time you are tempted to nibble your nails away, think twice.