Why Do I Bite My Nails --- Causes and Cures
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Why Do I Bite My Nails?---Causes and Cures

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January 29, 2013
By ALISON TURNER, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist

Nail biting, also known as onycophagia, may seem like a harmless habit that most of us have found ourselves trying from time to time.  Even more likely, is that you've seen nail biting in your kids.  Nail biting is "one of the most common childhood habits," and that 30 to 60% of children and teens bite their nails, according to a study from The Nemours Foundation in Delaware.   Is nail biting a big deal?  Should we take all measures possible to break this habit in our kids -- and ourselves -- or is it something we'll most likely grow out of?

In most cases, according to the Mayo Clinic, nail biting "isn't likely to cause long-term nail damage."  Then again, nail biting could lead to skin infections, increase the risk of colds, spread germs, and even indicate underlying mental health conditions.
What do we do if a nail biting habit gets out of hand?  The Mayo Clinic recommends treatments against nail biting as various as chewing gum, to therapy, to managing stress and anxiety.  Check out the list below for risks associated with nail biting, as well as ways to kick the habit, as verified by research from all over the world.

Top Causes of and Remedies for Biting Your Nails

1. Driving Solo: Boring Enough to Bite Your Nails Over?

Those of us with that daily commute through rush hour traffic find ways to adapt to the agony: we talk on hand-free headsets, we listen to books on tape, we talk to ourselves, or, according to research from the UK, a lot of us bite our nails.

In 2012, Tim Williams with the Institute of Education at Reading University in the UK  led a team of observers who "stationed themselves at a major road intersection" during peak traffic periods until 200 drivers without passengers and 200 drivers with passengers were observed.  "Body Focused Repetitive Behavior" was recorded, which were most commonly nail biting, nose picking, and hair manipulation. 

What they found was that having another passenger present in your reduces nail biting and other repetitive behaviors.  Furthermore, these behaviors, including nail biting, were observed "less in the evening than in the morning."  The team concludes that "driving alone and in the morning independently increase the rate" of body focused repetitive behaviors such as nail biting.
If you're worried about your nail biting on your way to work, it might be time to sign up for that carpool you've been avoiding: just think of the money you'd save on manicure bills.

2. Nail Biting: Not Very Social

We all want our kids to be comfortable around other kids, the hope being that they will then be comfortable as adults around other adults.  Research from Iran suggests that one way to get your kid to socialize is to kick his or her nail biting habit.

In 2011, Ahmad Ghanizadeh and Hajar Shekoohi with the Research Center for Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Hafez Hospital in Shiraz, Iran,  evaluated the relationship between nail biting and mental health in 743 children.  Data revealed that over 20% of girls and 24% of boys expressed nail biting behavior. 

Furthermore, the more social the child, the less likely he or she was to bite their nails.  In other words, children with nail biting, the team found, "have less pro-social ability than those without it."

This may, of course, be a chicken or the egg situation: is your child not socializing because she bites her nails, or does she bite her nails because she has no one to talk to?  Recognizing that there may be an association between the two habits may help you to help your child work on both at the same time.  Perhaps all the kiddo needs is a simple reminder that if you're talking to someone you can't have your nails in your mouth.

3. Nail Biting Increases the Risk for Diarrhea

Maybe you think it's not such a big deal that your child or relative bites their nails: it's just a habit, what's the harm?  While this may be true in some cases, research from Cuba suggests that nail biting may increase the risk of infections as serious as giardia, a parasitic infection of the small intestine with the charming nick name of "traveler's diarrhea."

In 2011, experts at the Academic Pediatric Hospital of Cerro in Cuba  analyzed the risk factors associated with giardia in children.  Several factors impacted a child's risk for giardia, though only two modifiable risk factors were found to be "independently and significantly" associated with giardia: nail biting and eating unwashed raw vegetables.  The team proposes that giardia prevention activities, particularly in Havana, be "focused on health education to improve personal hygiene."

You may be thinking, "Well, we don't live in Cuba, so the chances of nail biting affecting my child's risk for giardia can't be that bad".  Maybe.  But do you plan to travel with your child?  Will you always be there to enforce strict hygiene practices?

Helping your kid kick a nail biting habit now may be quite helpful when she decides to travel the world after college.

4. A Wrist Band that Won't Come Off: Unless You Stop Biting Your Nails!

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