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Compulsive nail biting and oral health

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If you bite your nails often, you should know that it has consequences for your body. Here we tell you how compulsive nail biting affects your oral health.

Compulsive nail biting causes more than just aesthetic problems on the hands. It also leads to consequences for your oral hygiene and oral health.

The habit of putting your fingers in your mouth is usually an unconscious act. Many times it is an indicator of an emotional conflict or it can be an imitation behavior. This problem can affect people of any age and is more common in childhood and adolescence. In some people, however, it continues into adulthood.

This habit, although it may seem harmless, can damage the mouth. Read on to find out how.

What is compulsive nail biting?

Nail biting is a compulsive and unconscious behavior where the person puts their hands in their mouth and bites the area at the outermost part of the fingers.

Onychophagia is another name for this and although the term refers to the nails specifically, it also includes biting the surrounding soft tissue, i.e. the skin around the nails.

Another way to refer to the disease is with the name trichotillomania. In fact, this word refers to a slightly more serious disorder, which includes pulling out the nails and even swallowing them. It has to do with psychiatric conditions such as OCD, depression, or body dysmorphic disorder.

The origin of nail biting is thought to be related to stress. When faced with recurring anxiety situations that cannot be resolved, these habits act as stress relievers.

There is also a hypothesis that the patient remains in the oral stage of his psychological development. This would explain the tendency to put things in the mouth, including nails.

General health problems caused by compulsive nail biting

Nail biting has specific consequences for oral health, which we will analyze later.

But first, let’s take a look at what happens in other body systems when this compulsion occurs. This is in addition to the associated psychiatric conditions that may occur which have their own signs and symptoms.

At the digestive level, ingesting nail bits that come off by biting can change the way the stomach processes food. It is possible that the production of stomach acid increases and that dyspepsia or, in other words, non-specific complaints in the upper part of the stomach occur.

If we continue to talk about the digestive tract, we see the consequences in the small intestine. Nail biting can facilitate the penetration of parasites that will settle and cause symptoms relative to each species.

Nail fungus is another consequence. This is a fungal infection of the nails. Because they are damaged and in constant contact with the mouth and increase their ambient humidity, fungal spores will have a favorable environment in which to settle.

It is worth mentioning that nail fungus is difficult to treat and requires long-term treatment with varnish and continuous use of medicine. Therefore, it is a disease that you should pay attention to and try to detect at an early stage.

In the same way, as with nail fungus, the soft tissue that surrounds the hard part of the fingers can also become infected, which is called paronychia or nail root inflammation. The very act of repeatedly biting the area helps the microorganisms enter the subcutaneous cellular tissue.

The consequences of compulsive nail biting on oral health

While the digestive system, the nails themselves, and the skin of the fingers are the most affected areas, compulsive nail biting also leads to undeniable consequences for oral health. Both the teeth and the rest of the structures in the oral cavity are susceptible.

Let’s remember that hands are always in contact with foreign substances and pathogens. We use these limbs to interact with the world around us on a daily basis.

With our hands, we come into contact with viruses, bacteria, parasites, and dirt that we then get into our mouths when we bite our nails. But that’s not all. There is also mechanical stress on the surfaces of the tooth elements, which can wear down the enamel and also make the gums inflamed.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the consequences of nail biting on oral health, which can be prevented by reducing the habit.

1. Compulsive nail biting wears down teeth prematurely

One of the consequences of nail-biting for oral health is wear and tear on tooth enamel. This happens due to the friction of the nails against the teeth and the rubbing of the teeth against each other.

As a result, the nail gets damaged when you bite. Then follows the mechanical load of the teeth in the upper jaw against the teeth in the lower jaw. This leads to repeated microtraumas.

These microtraumas eventually lead to microfractures and in extreme cases culminate in actual fractures of the tooth surface. Although there may be no fracture as such, there is continuous and premature wear.

The upper incisors are the worst affected because of their position and exposure to the habit. This is more apparent in people who suffer from onychophagia due to stress and anxiety, as they usually also have bruxism (teeth grinding).

2. Compulsive nail biting increases your risk of cavities

Cavities and caries are common diseases in the mouth. Its presence is explained by poor hygiene and oral care, which results in bacterial colonization, which leads to the breakdown of carbohydrates in the diet.

This transformation gives rise to acids that demineralize the tooth. So what would be the consequence of nail-biting in this case? It turns out that the bacteria on fingers and nails increase the colonization of the oral cavity.

The more bacteria there are, the greater the bacterial activity and the more acids can demineralize the tooth’s hard tissue. Therefore, the risk of cavities in the teeth increases.

3. Bad breath

Halitosis is the technical name for bad breath. The reasons for this vary, but the most common are related to poor oral hygiene and bacterial colonization. In other words, bad breath can be a consequence of nail biting.

As we said earlier, this compulsion can be part of major psychiatric disorders where general hygiene is affected. A depressed person, for example, tends not to take care of his or her appearance and hygiene and may not brush his or her teeth as often as he or she should.

Bacteria transported from the nails to the mouth through this habit contribute to the substrate for this process. It is common that our hands are often in contact with several external agents that facilitate the penetration of microorganisms.

4. Compulsive nail biting can lead to infections in the mouth

The mouth has a flora of healthy microorganisms. Some bacteria, therefore, live normally in the oral cavity and do not cause disease.

Very frequent contact with hands and unknown pathogens alters this balance. We have already mentioned that cavities in the teeth occur as a consequence of this penetration of bacteria, but other infections are also possible – and can also occur due to viruses and fungi. For example, oral herpes, also called labial herpes or lip herpes, can be transmitted through direct contact with the virus.

Halitosis, as we have already mentioned, is not always an isolated sign. Sometimes it is an expression of an ongoing infection caused by bacterial overgrowth. It is worth mentioning periodontitis here as a serious consequence of nail biting.

At the same time, some mouth ulcers are related to the colonization of microorganisms. These are often very painful sores that go away in about a week.

5. Temporomandibular disorders

The jaw joint can also take a beating from nail-biting, as the constant mechanical stress of chewing can change the function of the jaw. This causes pain when chewing food and can also lead to abnormal jaw movements.

If we add bruxism due to generalized stress, the risk of joint dysfunction increases. Some patients may experience ear pain as a manifestation of the disorder because the structures are tightly packed together.

There is evidence that bad habits cause jaw problems, so it is normal to associate nail biting with this consequence for oral health. The problem is that it’s not just hard to remove the repetitive action of biting your nails. It is also difficult to correct dysfunction in this joint.

How to avoid the consequences of compulsive nail biting on oral health?

If we want to avoid the consequences of compulsive nail biting on oral hygiene, we must take some measures to reduce this bad habit. These can range from psychological treatment to natural remedies to reduce the urge to bite.

When there is a clear change that affects the quality of life, or that causes physical problems like those we mentioned, it is a good idea to seek psychological treatment from a professional. The psychologist can then use different techniques depending on the individual case.

A condition of anxiety, depression, or stress that may be the cause of compulsive nail biting can also be treated. However, each case is unique and the methods will be adapted to the situation.

At the same time, the patient can perform techniques at home to reduce his urge to bite his nails. Meditation, yoga, deep breathing, or any method aimed at controlling stress are good options.

You can also buy nail polish that gives the nail an unpleasant taste. This is done to stop the habit of biting nails. There are also artificial nails with the same function.

When it comes to dental care, the first recommendation is to talk to your dentist. Healthcare professionals can confirm if damage already exists, and treat it, as well as recommend ways to prevent the habit. If they deem it necessary, they can refer you to a psychologist.

Compulsive nail biting has consequences for the health

Nail biting may seem like a minor problem when one is not aware of the consequences. However, we must not underestimate the ultimate effect this habit has on the teeth, digestive system, and skin.

If you or someone close to you regularly bites your nails, we recommend starting with a consultation. It can be at a dentist, a psychologist, or a doctor. There may be a cause, such as stress or anxiety, which can be resolved with the right treatment.

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