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Thomas P. Connelly, D.D.S. Headshot

Mouth Health: The Dish on Biting Your Nails

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Let's talk today about biting your nails, and why it's bad for you.

To start, let me say that yes, I know you nail biters out there really don't want to hear about it. You probably realize it's not the greatest habit in the world, and you're ready with the "well, at least I don't smoke/drink/other bad habit" rebuttal. But as a dentist (a dentist with a blog, no less), I feel it's my duty to let you know the perils of nail biting, especially as it relates to your teeth and oral health.

Let's start with a few facts. Nail biting (technically called Onychophagia) is fairly widespread, and varies wildly with age, as outlined below:

  • About 30 percent of children aged 7-10 bite their nails
  • About 45 percent of teenagers bite their nails
  • About 25 percent of young adults bite their nails
  • Only about five percent of older adults bite their nails

The above seems to mirror the fact that nail biting is generally seen as a stress-induced habit (as it peaks during the stressful teenage years), and usually subsides as we age.

Now that that's out of the way, let's talk about how nail biting is harmful to you:

  • It's unsanitary: Your fingers are pretty much involved in almost everything you do. Even with frequent hand-washing, your fingers are still dirty. Your fingernails are almost twice as dirty as your fingers. Since fingernails are not the easiest places in the world to clean, there's all manner of germs and bacteria underneath there-- germs you really don't want in your mouth. And when you bite your nails, you are inviting these germs into your mouth (and chewing them, etc.) Plus, bitten nails can be jagged, and may cut the gums, allowing these undesirable germs to easily access your bloodstream.
  • It's unsanitary (part two) - If you bite your nails close enough to irritate your cuticles and/or break the skin, the germ transfer from your mouth to the open wound is not really the best thing in the world for you. The two "germiest" places on your body are generally your hands/fingernails and your mouth. So it's pretty easy to see why putting these two together in the form of nail biting is not desirable.
  • It's not good for your looks: Nail biting really isn't the most pleasant thing to watch. But you likely already knew that. Plus, the nails themselves are far from attractive (manicured they aren't!)
  • It's not good for your teeth: Of course I take a personal interest in this part. But your teeth are not meant to be chewing all the time. Nail biting tends to keep your teeth in constant motion, which can wear them down faster than a non-nail biter's. In addition, nail biting puts a large amount of stress on your front teeth, and can weaken them, contribute to the teeth becoming crooked / misaligned, etc.
  • It's not good for teeth with braces, either: This one is more for the kids (or adults with braces), but since braces already put pressure on teeth, the additional pressure from nail biting really isn't welcome, and could lead to the weakening of the roots.
  • It can be costly: According to the Academy of General Dentistry (AGD), nail biting can result in up to $4,000 in additional dental bills over one lifetime. That's quite a bit of money. Of course, that doesn't take into account how much time/money being sick from all the germ transfers costs you, too. I could not find hard data on this (largely because it's unlikely a significant study was done), but it's not a stretch to assume that, all else being equal, nail biters will get sick more often during their lifetime than those who do not bite their nails.

So as you can see, nail biting is a pretty significant habit. Now that I've outlined all this bad news, let me finish up on a positive note with three tips on how to stop biting your nails:

  1. First, be more conscious of it. I know it sounds obvious, but "try" not to bite your nails. It really has helped some people. Also, ask others to tell you when you are biting your nails.
  2. Keep your nails looking good. Use some nail polish, and even get a manicure once in a while (yes, even you guys can do this). It's harder to bite great-looking nails - you just won't "want" to!
  3. Make it unpleasant. There are over-the-counter solutions specifically made for this. They are odorless and colorless, but taste terrible -- you won't want to bite nails treated with these solutions. Ask at the drug store, or just search online.
Good luck in breaking your nail biting habit!

Until next time, keep smiling.

Around the Web

Nail biting - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

How to Stop Biting Your Nails - wikiHow

Nail biting: Does it cause long-term damage? - MayoClinic.com

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