Call it nervousness or a bad habit, but this habit of biting your nails can be harmful to your health. For starters, biting your nails can raise your risk of catching cold or other illnesses because many times, people are putting their unwashed hands in their mouths. 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 like 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…”
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.
How To Stop Biting Your Nails
Besides covering your nails, here are ways to stop biting your nails:
1. Pick at least one nail at a time.
Focus on not biting that one nail. You can touch all nine of your other nails, but…