How dangerous is it to bite your nails?

Experts explain why you shouldn’t brush off your nail-biting habit.

Onychophagia, or nail biting, is a fairly common habit. About half of all pre-teens and teens bite their nails, according to University of Michigan health experts, although most people stop after age 30 (or at least stop giving in). Nail biting — which can be caused by stress, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or just boredom and nervousness — may seem completely harmless, but it can invite bacteria, viruses, or fungi to get into the body and bloodstream, increasing your chances from contracting a nasty infection, including the new coronavirus. “Nail biting is very risky right now because we know that the virus can live on surfaces, like your nails, and is usually transmitted to your face by touching your face,” says Purvi Parikh, MD, an adult and pediatric immunologist. and an allergist at NYU Langone Health in New York City. “So if you bite your nails, you run the risk of ingesting not only the virus, but other bacterial and viral pathogens as well.” (Check out these 7 annoying habits — here’s why we can’t help it.)

How bad is it to bite your nails?

How nail biting leads to bacterial and fungal infections

If you’ve ever had a manicure, you’ve no doubt noticed the gunk that the manicure removes from under your nails. That’s what you can see with the naked eye – so imagine all the bacteria you can’t see. The most common pathogens that lurk under our nails are: staphylococcistreptococciand Coryneform bacteria, which can enter the body through breaks in our skin or – you guessed it – by ingesting them after biting your nails.

If that’s not enough of a deterrent, just imagine dermatophyte fungi, also known as ringworm, hanging out in your nail tissue as you open your mouth and stick your finger in it. “Ideally, nails should be kept short and hands should be washed regularly,” says Dr. Parikh, following the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). According to the CDC, clean hands are the single most important factor in preventing the spread of pathogens and antibiotic resistance in healthcare facilities. The next time stress makes you want to bite your nails, try some healthy breathing techniques instead.

How nail biting leads to colds and flu

According to the CDC, there are more than 200 cold viruses floating around at any given time. While the risk factors for getting one are a weakened immune system and/or exposure to someone who is sick, you can greatly reduce your chances of contracting a virus by keeping your hands away from “your face, especially your mouth and nose,” says Dr. parikh. Viruses that cause the flu also thrive on your skin, so wash your hands regularly with soap and water (or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer) and discourage nail biting by chewing gum. “Keeping nails short is the best deterrent so you don’t get tempted,” says Dr. parikh. “Some nail biters report painting their nails with a clear or colored nail polish that deters nail biting because of the taste.”

How nail biting can damage your teeth

Nail biting can also damage teeth and gums. Nail biting can crack, crumble, or wear down the front teeth, and possibly lead to sore gums and gum damage. Ask your dentist if a mouthguard can help you stop nail biting — or at least minimize some of the damage it can cause. She may also be able to suggest some other techniques to help you quit the habit for good. A study published in 2016 in Case Reports in Dentistry suggests that a fixed oral appliance fitted by a dentist may be a solution, as it makes nail biting unpleasant and difficult. Then check out these 10 tips for strong, healthy nails.

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