Problems tackled: 41,656

Nail biting

You can take comfort from the fact that a lot of people are struggling with this habit. After seeing close-ups of himself in The Return of the King, Elijah Wood (who played Frodo Baggins), announced he would stop biting his nails, having been a nail-biter since childhood. Britney Spears and the UK Prime Minister are also said to be nail biters. One survey revealed that 36% of 5-year-olds, 57% of 12-year-olds and 31% of 16-year-olds bite their nails. (Medicine 2004;32:325.)

Biting your nails can be a very difficult habit to break, and motivation is the key. You must be really truly keen to stop. You obviously realize that your habit is off-putting to other people. It also invites medical problems such as swelling and inflammation of your gums (gingivitis), and if you bite the skin at the edge of the nails (cuticles) you may develop painful infections around the nail that can lead to scarring or even loss of the nail. Damage helps wart-causing viruses to enter the skin, so you could develop warts round the edge of the nail. Another possible consequence is a herpes infection of the finger, if you bite your nails when you have a cold sore on your lips.

How to stop nail-biting

A step-wise approach is the best method of stopping.
 
Trim or file off any irregular edge, because ragged nails can be a focus for nail-biting. If your nails are bitten right down, this may not be possible initially, but when the nails start to grow again make sure you keep them well-manicured.
 
Work out why you are biting your nails. Here are a few questions to ask yourself.
  • What was going on in my life when I started to bite my nails?
  • What emotions make me bite my nails? Are there particular trigger? situations that make me bite my nails that I might be able to avoid?
  • What are the situations in which I do not bite my nails?
  • Is there some problem in my life that is causing stress, which I could sort out? (In fact, this may not help a lot because nail-biting often starts during a period of stress, but then continues as a habit after the stress has been sorted out.)
Think up ways to prevent the habit. Here are some that other people have found helpful.
  • Keep gloves in your bag or pocket, and wear them when you want to bite.
  • Choose one nail to protect?. If you must bite, choose one of the other nails. When this special nail has grown nicely, after a while (don't be in too much of a hurry) choose another nail to protect.
  • Stick on artificial nails, but be aware there are safety concerns about artificial nail products. They are made from many chemicals, but the main one is ethyl methacrylate (EMA). Previously, a similar chemical called methyl methacrylate (MMA) was used, but this has been banned in many countries including the USA. Both MMA and EMA can cause eczema, asthma (wheezing and tight chest) and allergies in the eyes and nose (British Medical Journal 2003;327:1050).
Buy some bitter-tasting nail paint from a pharmacy. This is specially made to prevent nail-biting, and you will usually find it in the nail care section of the pharmacy. This aversion therapy works quite well, especially for people who bite their actual nails but not the skin around the nails. For people who bite the skin, painting around the nail does not seem to work, because the bitter substance does not stick to the skin for long enough. Some people get used to the bitter taste, so the nail paint is not always a permanent cure.
 
Try the competing response/habit reversal method. This simply means that whenever you feel the urge to bite your nails, you do another action instead. For example, you could wear an elastic wrist-band, and snap it on the inside of your wrist whenever you feel the urge to bite your nails. Alternatively, clench your fists tightly with the thumbs inside against the palms of your hands for a minute or two; if you are in a situation where this action would be inappropriate, you grasp some object instead. Scientific studies have shown that this method can be surprisingly effective both for nail-biting and for nibbling of the skin around the nail. (Journal of Clinical Psychiatry;64:408.)
 
For this method to work, you must train yourself to know when you are biting your nails, which can be difficult. Ask your friends and family to help by immediately telling you whenever they see you nail-biting.
 

Written by: Dr Margaret Stearn
Edited by: Dr Margaret Stearn
Last updated: Saturday, February 13th 2010

 


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Comments on this article

Posted by Optional on 31/03/2016 at 01:26

I bite my nails and the skin around them i know this sounds disgusting it is but i liteerally cant stop whenever my fingers arent doing something they automatically go to my mouth i hate it so much but i cant stop ANY IDEAS?? please

Posted by asdfghjkl on 11/01/2016 at 09:26

I PICK and bite my nails.. I dont know how to stop bc it hurts my hands

Posted by gorya on 01/09/2014 at 03:24

Thanks Very helpful!!!!!

Posted by Optional on 27/08/2014 at 03:53

Hello, i'm 29 and ever since i know myself, one thing i can't stop is bitting my nails. I feel like it's been part of me and it drives e crazy knowing my nails are ugly and not attractive at all. I even do it to the extend i bite the skin also. I want to find out what are the main curse of this bad habit.

Posted by Bubbi on 06/06/2014 at 07:08

I've been biting my nails for as long as I can remember! I'm only 15, and I try my best not to. So when I go to bite my nails, I text a friend instead. My nails are currently growing as I love having long nails because it looks a lot better on girls than half chewed nails. I file my nails down at the sides so I don't have any spiked bits that catch a hold of my clothes or other things that may be lose around me. I have lots of ways to stop me from biting my nails: 1. Paint them a with polish and you will hesitate to bite as the polish won't taste so good in your mouth. 2. Text a friend or type on the computer when you feel the need to bite. 3. Moisturise your hands daily and make sure to do your nails too, when you go to bite your nails, you'll get the horrible taste of moistureiser in your mouth and you'll stop biting. 4. ALWAYS REMEMBER, BITING YOUR NAILS HAS MORE GERMS THAN LICKING THE TOILET SEAT.

Posted by Optional on 04/06/2014 at 07:51

I'm am 12 turning 13 in November. I have bitten my nails since I can remember and have tried to stop several times but have been unsuccessful!! My mum tells me nobody will want to hold my hand when I grow up but I still cannot resist the tempation!!!!! Over the years I have tried so many nail polishes and covers that are made to taste horrible to stop me from biting but I just get used to the taste and carry on!!!:( I need a good motivation method!!!!! Any ideas?????

Posted by Optional on 13/05/2013 at 11:10

Lol... I bite my nails and my mum always gets me in trouble for doing soo. I try to so but it it very hard and addicting!

Posted by Optional on 03/04/2013 at 03:10

hi, i am 12 and turning 13 years old in september, and YES I DO BITE MY NAILS!!! it is really hard to break the habit and i even tried giving it up for lent, but it didnt work. I have a really big problem though. On both of my pointer fingers i have a dark line running through the nail. Is it a fungus or something? It is also really embarrasing too because my teacher in school asked me to put my arms out and she put something on my hand where you can see the nails and it was dark. I could see if from where I was standing out in front of her and it was dark. Imagine what she though!!! how can i get rid of these dark lines under my nail. I went to the doctor and he said it was from biting my nails, but after i stopped for a few months nothing happened. then i started doing it again

Posted by Optional on 05/02/2013 at 04:11

I used to bite my nails ever since I was a little child 4-5 years old maybe. I stopped doing it when I was 13 because I wanted to have a good manicure. It helped me motivate myself to stop doing it. I didn't use any special methods or anything, I just told myself I have to stop doing it because it was a disgusting habit and so I did. I've never wanted to do it since I stopped. I'm wearing nail polish most of the time and it kind of helps I guess.

Posted by Optional on 11/07/2012 at 08:35

This was very useful, I went to my local chemist and bought some bitter-tasting nail varnish, it definitely stopped me biting my nails, the taste is horrible and I just got out of the habit, slowly associating biting my nails with a bad taste.

Posted by Optional on 29/02/2012 at 05:14

hi i am 15 and i bite my nails like crazy all the time got the habbit of my dad about 10 years ago wen i was 5 and i find that dabbing the tip of my fingers in nailvollish remover helps (i am male so there is no shame in it) it burns a little somtimes if u bite far down but it stops short term biting all together and if u do it regularly hopefully u will stop....thanks for listneing :)

Posted by micaela mckinley on 24/11/2011 at 09:51

yay! stopped but sometimes still biting them

Posted by Optional on 16/10/2011 at 06:18

hi i am forever biting my nails and i cannot stop, i have been trying for a year now and i still cant stop, i really want to stop but i just cant. i dont know if ots because i am always nervous or if its because i am always doing it, i really wnat to stop now as my fingers are always in a stateand i am really not liking it anymore? any chance you can help me?

Posted by ME on 14/08/2011 at 08:02

I used to bite my nails so bad that they would bleed like crazy! I found out that if I chew gum it helps me a lot because I already have something in my mouth so I don't put my nails in there.

Posted by Optional on 26/04/2011 at 05:32

I bight my males all the time and I can't stop! I always have to wear bandages around my fingers because I would bight too much skin and they would bleed! Its really embarrassing. I think I am going to try to protect a nail thing

Posted by Optional on 27/03/2011 at 08:12

I'm a 17 yr old girl and I reckon it was stressful times that got me going again. I quit for a year and now I can't stop, it's viral! Whenever my friends are comparing or painting their nails, I keep mine well hidden, they do not want to see my disgusting nails. Plus my mum gets soo annoyed when i bite them, shes like a nail biter sensor lol. Even when her back is turned and i'm knawing through them quietly she'll be like "stop biting!". My nails are in state now so i'm going file them down and try that protect one nail idea. Thanks for your help Doctor :)

Posted by Latenighter on 09/03/2011 at 01:09

I bite left-hand nails whilst right hand occupied with mouse (computer variety) or holding a book - both non-stressful occupations. I've found myself starting to bite several times whilst reading the article on how to stop! I think it's the same urge as chewing the end of a pen or pencil. The important action is scraping my front teeth on something in a biting motion. The other action is biting off bits of nail prompted by rough edges, which is helped by keeping the nails short and filed smooth. I've never actually analysed what I do before I read people's comments here. I think it might help me.

Posted by Raheel Ali on 22/02/2011 at 04:37

Hi, Just a quick tip, i had been biting my nails almost untill i was 23 years old. Then my mum asked me to wear "loose" trousers when at home, or "loose" pants when at work. i noticed one of my hands or both were always busy trying to control my bottoms. This is how i slowly stopped biting my Nails. Also the above mentioned article is 100% true, because i suffered it all. Thank You for free advise on your free website. Regards, Raheel Ali

Posted by Optional on 12/01/2011 at 05:52

I think that the main trigger for nail-biting would be stress. i find that every time im in a situation im not keen on, or that reminds me of stressful things iv had happen to me in the past, i bite. unconciously. iv been doing it for so long now, its a comfort thing and i find it really difficult to stop. i used to try the bitter nail polish, but i got used to the taste,my family used to tease me about it, and that used to be upsetting, but i think theyve got used to it aswell. i know its a bad habit to bite my nails, and i know that its unhealthy, but im still trying to find out how to stop myself. i think that i need to go back to the beginning...to when i started biting my nails, so i can start to stop myself...i think that this is something a lot of people would find useful. its nice to know that im not the only one who has this problem. from what iv read, its a way to deal with the stress...

Posted by jessica on 18/12/2010 at 07:49

the protect one nail is a really good idea i will come back in two weeks and say how it has been working out for me sothank you Dr.Steam

Posted by Optional on 17/11/2010 at 08:11

Nail biting is the worst thing i could have ever done to myself. the thing i hate is when i get out of the pool or the bath and my fingers look all bitten and mingy. The bitter tasting thing doesn't work. WHAT DO I DO.

Posted by Cate on 12/10/2010 at 08:00

Thanks for the tips but biting nails looks childish to many. Ive gotten used to the comments i get from friends and family. I got a lot of stress in 2008, till then ive not stopped biting nails. I tried nail polish but when it wore off, i bit the nails to the tip.

Posted by Anonymous on 18/09/2010 at 05:44

im 13 and ever since i i knew how to bite my nails i have. now im older i hate it, ive tryed so many things, the sour tasting creams, wearing fake nails, and just trying to stop. now this is really annoying and i dont no what to no anymore. my fingers look horrible .. help

Posted by Optional on 17/07/2010 at 02:47

it sucks biting nail the in fact whenever im getting manicures the chinan ladies laugh and say you bite yo nauls hahah its sooooo anoying!!!!!!

Posted by Optional on 25/04/2010 at 12:49

i bite the side skin of the nail is that bad?

Posted by Optional on 08/04/2010 at 03:46

it feels like my fingertips are suffocating!

Posted by Rachel on 30/11/2009 at 06:46

I've been struggling with this same habit since before I can remember. My dad bites his nails, too, so we've teamed up, and whenever I see him biting his nails, I tell him to stop, and vice versa. It's helpful when we're around eachother, but now that I'm away at college, the stress has doubled, as well as my urge to bite my nails. I think the key to quitting is FOCUS and PERSISTANCE. You have to want to quit.

Posted by zoe wallace on 14/07/2009 at 03:36

i can't stop bitting my nails to save my life please help

Posted by debaleena on 17/04/2009 at 12:12

i have this peculiar habit of biting my nails since childhood.many times many people have told me to stop this thing but i csnt control.for this my right hand looks very shabby.

Posted by emma pearson on 14/04/2009 at 11:19

even when i have mail varnish on i still bite them

Posted by jane on 03/03/2009 at 02:39

I have bitten my nails for donkeys yonks. I grew them when pregnant then bit them off after the birth. I grew them when my hubby promised to buy me a ring. I wore falses and as they popped off i did not replace them. My nails all grew except my 2 little fingers. They were strong and wonderful. My rings yes he got me 2 looked wonderful. I did not want to put them anywhere near my mouth and was well proud of myself until now...I saw my step mother twice in one day and yep that week bit my lovely thumb nail. Now I only have one decent nail left and the rest are getting shorter and shorter. I beat myself up each morning.WHY DID I DO IT??? I can only suggest it is hormonal and do do with stress or anxiety which gets triggered easily by my biased stepmother. Anyway I am determined not to make them shorter and will wear gloves whilst watching TV each night.

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