Onychophagia or onychophagy (yes, nail biting has a baptismal name) is an oral compulsive habit. This parafunctional activity is done by children and adults alike though its onset usually occurs in childhood or adolescence. In simple words, it is when someone bites off the free edge of his/her nails with the teeth. Sometimes, this can progress to “eating-off” of the nail plate, thereby shortening the nails.
I, for one, bite my nails just like many others which may include you. I may count myself blessed because I’ve been able to limit mine to just the free edges – I don’t go beyond that. But my little cousin does! She bites until she starts to feel pain and then, the complaints start.
When we bite our nails, there is sometimes a tiny, but major consequence that results – the skin on the cuticle breaks. When cuticles are not properly removed, what happens is that they become prone/susceptible to both microbial and viral infections. You find that the area where the nail and skin meet at the side or the base of the infected fingernail becomes tender (red, swollen and painful).
Nail biting can also be related to dental problems, such that there is need to use the finger and soothe an ailing gum. This is the reason infants who are beginning to teeth always have something in their mouths because they need to scratch their gums. And that is why they usually are sick (because of germs they contact from such things as their toys, fingers and anything they can lay their hands on). It is not the teething process that causes them fever, diarrhoea etc., but the germs from the things they put inside their mouth. The key is to keep their environs clean as most “teething powders” in the market are actually ground paracetamol! Okay, back to nail biting.
Having our fingernails in our mouth is also a good way to transfer worms and bacteria buried underneath the nails from the anus to the mouth (now, do I have to tell you to always wash your hands after using the rest room?). Then swallow those bitten-off nails and have your stomach get “upset”!
What’s worse, one can end up with those “ugly, shortened-as-a-result-of-dining-on-the-nails” looking fingernails.
“To every problem, there is a solution” is a popular expression. This is also true for nail biting. Are you like me, or my little cousin and wish to discontinue biting your nails completely? Or just like me, wish to get to the place where you only do your free edges the favour of not using clips on them? (Please note that it is not advisable for you to trim the free edges with a blade – clips are best). Keep reading.
We already noted that nail biting is a compulsive habit and sometimes, we do it subconsciously. A way to discourage this habit is by applying a clear, bitter-tasting nail polish to the nails (example denatonium benzoate). For my little cousin, my sister used bitter leaf syrup on it. Get a few leaves, squeeze out the fluid and apply to your fingernails or those of your child who bites his/her nails.
Every habit is learned and can be unlearned too. But it is easier to learn a habit than it is to unlearn it. To stop biting your nails, you need to begin to learn to unlearn it (make sense?). One way to do this is to identify the root cause. Do you bite your nails when stressed, bored or like some, when studying. Knowing the reason you do what you do is a great way to stop doing it because when you deal with the root issue, the rest is usually easier to handle.
You might want to do things with your hands when stressed or bored. And chewing sugar-free gum is also a good way of keeping your mouth and teeth busy.
A healthy diet is important. You need those damaged nails repaired and able to grow well. Calcium and magnesium rich foods and fruits are your best bet. Examples include spinach/green, garlic, lettuce, grape leaves, okro, corn meal, cucumber, water melon etc.
Make up your mind to stop biting those nails and judiciously and consciously stop it. Only you can if you choose to.
Get those nails out of that shabby, not-so-good-to-look-at state today!