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How to Break Bad Habits for Healthier Lips and Nails
Habits like biting your nails or lip can affect your health as well as your appearance. Despite the downsides, many people find that breaking these habits is much easier said than done.
Board-certified dermatologist Dr. Roy Seidenberg of the Laser & Skin Surgery Center of New York in New York City says it is not unusual for dermatologists to encounter nail and lip biting when seeing patients. He has information about the short and long-term effects of these habits, as well as ideas on how to break them.
Nail Biting: Why We Do It
Nail biting, also known as onychophagia, appears to be an especially common habit in people who stare at their computers all day, according to Dr. Seidenberg. For many, it acts as a stress reliever. While Dr. Seidenberg acknowledges there are worse habits, nail-biting can lead to some unpleasant changes.
Nail-biting often begins in childhood and may be attributed to stress, anxiety, or boredom. While it is usually nothing more than a bad habit, there are cases where nail-biting is a sign of a more serious psychological or emotional problem. The American Academy of Dermatology encourages chronic nail biters to see their doctor for further assessment if they can’t break the pattern on their own. To learn more about the AAD, visit aad.org
Consequences of Nail Biting
Although nail-biting isn’t a dangerous problem, it can create some health issues. Roy Seidenberg, MD explains that the cuticles normally act as a sealant between the skin at the base of the nail, known as the proximal nailfold, and the nail. Destruction of the cuticle allows dirt, bacteria, and chemical irritants to get under the skin.
An infection or inflammation of the nail or nailfold is called a paronychia. If bacteria gets under the skin, it could cause a bacterial infection or abscess. An acute bacterial infection would present with redness, pain, and swelling around the nail. Treatment usually requires cutting and drainage of the pus and/or antibiotics.
When detergents and other irritants get under the nailfold, it causes inflammation. Over time, this will cause the skin to become thickened and red, an inflammatory paronychia. The inflammation can lead to chronic loss of the cuticle. A possible consequence of this is a chronic paronychia from yeast (Candida).
Since the nail starts growing right under the nailfold, the nail may begin to grow abnormally. If severe or chronic, this can result in a permanently abnormal nail.
Stop Biting Your Nails
Dr. Seidenberg understands that it can be quite challenging to break the nail-biting habit. He explains, since these habits are usually unconscious, they are tough to stop for many patients. Finding a topical that is non-toxic, will stay on, won’t irritate the skin, and will actually act as a deterrent is difficult. Moisturizing the skin is essential, and an ointment like Aquaphor may act as a deterrent as well. Dr. Seidenberg usually prescribes topical cortisone for the inflamed, thickened skin to reverse the process, and minimize any permanent damage.
Other ideas to help you kick the habit might include:
- Identifying your triggers – for example, if stress leads to nail-biting, prepare for your next stress-inducing moment with an alternative, like squeezing a stress ball
- Cutting your nails – you will be less likely to bite short nails
- Getting a professional manicure – when your nails look nice, you will also be less likely to bite them
- Changing the taste – use a bitter-tasting nail polish designed specifically for this purpose
To learn more about nail biting management, visit ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
Lip Biting: Why We Do It
Lip licking and biting are also habits that can affect both how we look and how we feel. Lip licking is most common in patients with dry skin or eczema, sometimes caused by an underlying irritant or allergic contact dermatitis. Ironically, chronic licking and biting makes the problem worse, and it turns into a progressive cycle. The skin becomes drier, cracked, red, and thickened.
Lip biting, like nail-biting, can become a persistent habit. It is a common anxiety symptom and people often do it subconsciously. This can make it even more challenging to reverse the pattern. We often treat patients in our New York City office that have experienced uncomfortable consequences of this habit.
The Problem with Lip Biting
Not everyone will experience issues with lip biting. However, persistent biters may see some of the following symptoms occur.
Regular lip biting causes breaks in the tissue that could possibly leave scars behind. The trauma could potentially result in a cold sore outbreak since breaks in the skin can make a person more susceptible to acquiring a cold sore infection. Residual scarring from lip biting can be treated with a laser in our office in many cases.
Biting of the lip can also cause a rupture or blockage of a salivary gland. This manifests as a nodule in the lip called a mucocele. While not serious, they usually get in the way and keep getting bitten so they take a while to resolve. Mucoceles can be drained or cut off, but recurrences are high.
How to Break the Lip Biting Habit
It’s not easy to stop biting the lip if this is something you have done regularly for some time. Some tips that might help you break the habit include:
- Moisturizing your lips multiple times a day to prevent them from getting dry and chapped
- Exfoliating to remove loose skin and keep lips smooth, moisturize immediately after exfoliation
- Practicing awareness that helps you tune into when you bite your lips so you can make a conscious effort to stop
- Finding healthy ways to manage stress so you are less likely to fall back into this habit
Stop Your Nail and Lip Biting Today
Dermatologists don’t solely focus on the skin – they are also experts in treating the nails and the lips. New York City residents that need help getting their nails or lips in top condition can schedule a consultation with one of our board-certified dermatologists at the Laser & Skin Surgery Center of New York.
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