Health professionals also explain why people bite their nails in the first place—and how to get yours back in shape if you do succumb to this habit.

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There are several beauty-related bad habits that people do nearly every day, almost mindlessly. Some are nervous ticks while others are directly related to other health conditions. Biting your nails, however, actually falls under both categories. And this common habit is one that's definitely worth breaking, since it could lead to nail damage and cause other health issues over time. Ahead, experts explain how this habit develops and how to combat it moving forward.

close up of woman filing fingernails
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Nail biting is a body-focused repetitive disorder.

"Nail biting, also known at onychophagia, is part of the larger category of body-focused repetitive disorders," says One Medical's Dr. Natasha Bhuyan, MD, who notes that this habit usually involves biting the actual nails or just picking at cuticles. "There are several underlying reasons for nail biting, which sometimes happens unintentionally. Psychologists think that it provides a counter to our emotions: It provides stimulation when we are faced with boredom, or a calming outlet when we are stressed."

While Dr. Bhuyan explains that nail biting is common, it could develop into a more severe habit, one associated with ADHD, Tourette syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder, separation anxiety disorder, or oppositional defiant disorder. She says to keep in mind that simply biting your nails doesn't mean you have one of these conditions, though. Dr. Shari Lipner, MD, PhD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist, shares that nail biting could also come about if others in your family do it, too. "Some nail biters may also perform other repetitive behaviors, such as skin picking and hair pulling," she adds.

It can seriously damage your nails over time.

If you only bite your nails every now and then and you're able to stop, you're in luck—the long-term structure of your nails should be in good shape. But Dr. Lipner says that if you've been biting your nails for years, some health conditions could develop as a result. "The length of the nail may be permanently shortened and they may develop brown lines. You can also contract bacterial and viral infections," she says. Dr. Bhuyan adds that "disrupting the skin around the nails can increase the risk of fungal infection of the nail plate or skin." Plus, other conditions can pop up in other areas of the body. "People may also suffer from dental issues, like crowding or malpositioning of their teeth or protrusion of the upper front teeth," she says. "Swallowing nails can also cause gastrointestinal issues."

Thankfully, there are ways to stop.

The best way to begin to overcome this habit and allow your nails to grow naturally, says Dr. Bhuyan, is to ask yourself these questions: Are you suffering from stress and anxiety, or is this a habit borne out of boredom? Once you determine a possible underlying issue, connect with a board-certified dermatologist or your primary care physician to address the condition and find a solution. Dr. Bhuyan notes that providers often recommend exercise and mindfulness to help with stress management; keeping nails trimmed is also a good idea. "Treatments for nail biting include substituting nail biting with another activity, such as squeezing a stress ball, applying bitter tasting lacquer, and wearing a non-removable reminder, such as a wristband," Dr. Lipner adds. "Your dermatologists can also prescribe prescription medications."

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