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Nail Biting

Is nail biting common?

Nail biting is a common habit. It is usually not a serious problem for children. It becomes most common in adolescence when almost half of all children bite their nails to some degree.

What problems are caused by biting the fingernails?

Most children that bite their nails have no problems. In some cases, nail biting may cause:

  • a bacterial infection
  • warts around the nail bed
  • bleeding
  • permanent nail damage.

Why does my child bite his nails?

Some of the reasons children bite their nails include:

  • stress or anxiety
  • imitation of other children
  • a transition from thumbsucking
  • poorly trimmed nails.

How can I help my child stop?

Treatment should address the reason why your child is biting his nails. If your child is under a lot of stress, try to reduce the stress. For example, try to figure out what stressful situations seem to cause your child to bite his nails (such as being bored, watching a suspenseful TV show, or getting frustrated with homework) and try to avoid those situations.

Cutting long nails helps some children. Nails can also be smoothed so that they do not bother your child. Direct your child's attention away from nail biting and try to help your child feel good about himself.

Punishing or shaming a child for nail biting is not helpful.

If you have an older child that wants to stop nail biting, you can help your child make a plan to break the habit. You can help your child find something to put on his fingers to remind him to stop nail biting. For example, your child may want to try wearing a pair of gloves, putting Band-Aids on the fingers, or applying a bitter-tasting preparation to the fingers. You should not require your child to use any of these strategies. It should be your child's decision to work on breaking the habit.

Will my child outgrow the habit?

Most nail biters eventually stop the habit. It is difficult to say when children will stop biting their nails. More than 75% of those who bite their nails as adolescents will stop by the time they are 35 years of age.

When should I call the doctor?

Call your doctor for more advice about habit behaviors.

Written by Robert Brayden, MD, Associate Professor of Pediatrics, University of Colorado School of Medicine.
Published by McKesson Provider Technologies.
Last modified: 2001-09-07
Last reviewed: 2006-08-22
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright 2006 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All Rights Reserved.
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