Brittle nails, hair loss, thinning eyebrows, or dry skin might be indications of undiagnosed thyroid problems.

Q. I have bitten my fingernails for years. I’ve stopped several times for as long as six months, but just like a smoker, I can’t kick the habit for good.

The biggest problem is when I’m reading, watching TV or a movie or driving. It leaves my fingers and cuticles ugly and very sensitive. How can I quit?

A. There are surprisingly few well-controlled studies of treatments for nail biting. Many health professionals view this habit as a manifestation of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Some data suggest that cognitive behavioral therapy could be effective (Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, May, 2009).

Over-the-counter approaches involve painting bitter-tasting substances on the nails to remind the person to stop biting. They include products such as Mavala Stop or Control-It!, with denatonium. Some people also find that clear nail polish helps remind them not to bite their nails.

A preliminary study suggests that the nutritional supplement N-acetyl cysteine (NAC) may also be helpful in stopping this habit (CNS Spectrums, July, 2009). This nutraceutical may help with impulsivity.

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  1. Colleen

    I had chewed down, bloody, sore, infected nails and cuticles my whole life until I found a way to stop. I started using hand lotion-it tastes disgusting. I carried a nail file, nail clipper, and tiny lotion everywhere. If a nail got snagged, it got clipped and filed. The clip and file helped to replace the gnawing and gave me something to focus on. The lotion helped to soften the skin, so that I didn’t feel compelled to chew or pull on a piece of dry, ragged skin. No more germs being put into my mouth, no more pain, and my nails look nice-finally. It has been thirty years now. If my hands get dry or if I chip or break a nail, I still almost put my fingers in my mouth to fix it. The thought of germs today helps me remember to reach for that nail file!

  2. Lauren

    It was a habit for 50 years; couldn’t stop. A few months ago, I started taking Magnesium. It has calmed and quieted my nerves so much so that, without consciously willing myself to stop, I have not bitten my nails or put my fingers in my mouth since then.

  3. C.J. Ware

    In my opinion hypnosis is the best way to break the habit. Hypnosis is also the only way that I know of to quickly, easily, and permanently remove the urge to bite your nails. It worked for me.

  4. ebm

    Perhaps putting on cotton gloves before watching TV or reading and at bedtime would help with this “unconscious” habit, just like snacking on chips, etc. Most of us just keep
    shoving the snacks in without registering the real taste until someone reminds it or takes it away.

  5. SMW

    When I was a teenager, I too found I could not stop biting my nails.
    The teenage years are emotional, which may have something to do with the habit.
    A friend told me to start carrying a nail file in my purse. Then every time I went to bite, I filed instead.
    End of habit.

  6. Sue T

    I finally figured out that the obsessional aspect of my fingernail biting had to do with trying to get the rough edges of my nails smooth. As long as the nail edges are smooth, I am less tempted to bite them. It’s about a 60-year habit by now, so it has been very hard to quit. In the last two weeks I’ve managed to actually start growing my nails.
    This took:
    1) A decision that I am now in an ‘alternate universe’ where I don’t bite my nails. :-)
    2) By my bedside are my favorite nail files, a nail surface polishing gadget (no chemical polishes), and cuticle cream or oil.
    3) Every night at bedtime I see these items, remember to check & refile as needed, use cream or oil on the cuticles, and trim off rough cuticle edges & corners.
    4) In this alternate universe, I apparently still WANT to bite my nails! When tempted, I’ve managed to just chew on the cuticles, which in the daytime can get hard and rough again. I carry a file in my purse in case a nail gets impossible to ignore.
    5) If the temptation keeps going, I fix some hot tea (non-caffienated in the afternoon). By the time I’ve finished it, I’ve usually forgotten about the nails/cuticles.
    6) In this alternate universe, I’ve decided any backsliding will not negate the change. A slip-up is just that, as soon as I notice it I can refile that nail.
    So far so good.
    Coincidentally, in the last few weeks I’ve added B6 (25mg), B12 (500 mcg), and Folate (800 mcg) to my daily medications (for other reasons). Have no idea whether this has some influence.

  7. Sally M.

    I had this habit as a teenager and did it unconsciously when I was engaged in reading or study. The way I kicked the habit was a bit unorthodox. An older friend and mentor, who spent one summer with our family, was determined to get me to stop. Each time she saw my hand go to my face, she would either give me a verbal warning, or she would literally pull my hand away from my face (with my permission). Therefore, it brought it to a consciousness level as a gentle negative reinforcement, and I eventually stopped altogether.

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