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Why Biting Your Nails Is More Than Just A Bad Habit

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The question: I've always been told that I should stop biting my nails because it's "bad for me." But why is it bad?

The answer: Sure, biting and picking at your nails is kinda gross. It also is a sure-fire way to make your manicure that was supposed to last all week last only a day. And while it's a nervous habit that's certainly on the more innocuous side of the spectrum, it can still affect your health.

For starters, biting your nails can raise the risk of catching a cold or other illness because you're putting your unwashed hands in your mouth. It can also raise the risk of paronychia, or infection of the skin surrounding the nail, says Rochelle Torgerson, M.D., Ph.D., a dermatologist at the Mayo Clinic.

You can "end up with redness and swelling and pain and discomfort -- that's a sign of infection," Torgerson tells HuffPost. While most instances of paronychia are bacterial, they can also be fungal.

In addition, if you have a wart, biting your fingernails is a way to raise your risk of spreading warts to other parts of your hands. That's because warts are caused by one of the many kinds of human papillomavirus (HPV), a virus that spreads as an infection. "The more open skin you have, the more you're going to spread" the virus, she says.

Biting or picking your nails could also lead to temporary or permanent effects to your actual nail. Torgerson explains that the majority of the fingernail is produced in the area of the nail bed where there is a "white hill," also called the lunula. The fingernail is made there, as well as the area beneath the lunula that extends down underneath the skin. "So if you end up with a lot of inflammation or an infection of that skin ... where the fingernail is made, you can start making a funny fingernail," she explains. "You may end up with a fingernail that's bumpy or ridge-y."

Sometimes these effects are temporary. An infection that lasts a week or two might lead to a funny-looking nail for a short period of time, she says. But "you can also do permanent damage to the area, so you forever make a funny nail."

Aside from nail biting or picking, some people also have the nervous habit of using one hand to push down the cuticles of fingers on their other hand (most commonly the thumbs). People who do this "push back the cuticle so often and so aggressively that [they] end up making a fingernail that has horizontal ridges in it" -- called a habit-tic deformity, Torgerson explains. This is "repeat trauma to that area," which can also result in a funny-looking fingernail.

Nail biting can also have effects on your teeth: As Everyday Health points out, it can lead to teeth shifting out of place, as well as potential breaks in teeth or tooth enamel.

So what can you do to kick the habit? Torgerson notes that most people bite or pick at their fingernails as a way of relieving, or channeling, stress. Finding another way to release that stress -- that doesn't involve picking at or gnawing on a part of your body -- could be useful. Try twirling a ring instead, or playing with a hair tie on your wrist. "Basically, instead of telling someone [to] just stop, maybe you can come up with another way of relieving the stress that's driving you to do it that doesn't end up causing damage," she says. Women's Health also has some great tips for stopping nail-biting here.

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"Ask Healthy Living" is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical advice. Please consult a qualified health care professional for personalized medical advice.

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