Nail Biting Consequences: Habit May Cause Life-Threatening Infection

Do you ever chew your nails off when reading articles about dangerous health consequences? This one just might get you to do the opposite.

The habit of nail biting or onychophagia is commonly used as a coping mechanism for psychological factors such as stress and boredom. But what most people would assume to be an unhygienic but ultimately harmless habit almost cost a young British man his life.

Calling it a "nervous thing," 28-year-old Luke Hanoman explained that he used to frequently bite his nails. "And one day, I bit the skin down the side of my nail. It hurt a bit but I didn’t think anything of it."

But soon after, he developed flu-like symptoms, high fever, cold sweats, and swelling in his fingers. As the symptoms worsened, he was found with red lines all over his body and was rushed to the hospital.

Hanoman was diagnosed with Sepsis, a potentially life-threatening infection which seemed to have occurred due to the small piece of skin he chewed off. 

"They told me I was lucky to make it so long. I was close to septic shock," he said, recalling how the doctors initially did not reveal the severity of his condition to avoid causing stress.

Any wound-like opening can become a gateway for bacteria to enter the body and cause an infection. Tears on the skin of fingertips, in particular, can allow yeast and bacteria to accumulate inside, leading to swelling, redness, and a build-up of puss. Treatment may involve surgical draining or the use of antibiotics.

Dr. Steven Simpson, the medical director of the Sepsis Alliance, stated that ignoring serious symptoms and not taking antibiotics on time can lead to a situation like the one Hanoman was in, or worse. 

"Waiting too long [to get antibiotics] is dangerous. When you have these kinds of symptoms, people need to seek medical attention," he explained, referring to fever, swelling, chills, etc.

But infections are not the only consequences of nail-biting. After all, the act involves another significant body part apart from your fingernails: Your teeth.

"Constant biting can lead to poor dental occlusion, so the biter’s teeth shift out of position or become oddly shaped," said Dr. Chris Adigun, a dermatologist at NYU Langone Medical Center. In other words, it can affect how your upper and lower teeth come into contact at rest or when you chew. Stress can cause teeth grinding, Dr. Adigun said, adding how fingernails can serve as "a handy buffer" for people who are prone to such conditions.

If you are looking to kick the habit, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends that nail-biters identify their triggers (for example, hangnails) and find alternative ways to deal with them. Keeping nails trimmed short or wearing bitter-tasting nail polish are also useful methods to help people lose their nail-biting tendency over time.