Is Nail Biting Bad For You?

by Georgina Lawton
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When it comes to habits way up there on the gross-o-meter, biting nails doesn't particularly freak me out; I'm of the opinion that there are definitely grosser things one can do with the human body. But is nail biting bad for you, in actual fact? Like, really? Nail biters are often chastised for spreading germs and infections due to the constant hand-to-mouth contact — but one new study suggests that although the habit itself may not be great for your fingers and skin, there might be at least one unexpected benefit to it. So maybe, just maybe, you can hold off on buckling down and kicking the habit for now.

The next time someone tuts at you for nibbling on your fingers, send them in the direction of this new research, which made a case for that fact that habits like thumb sucking and nail biting can offer some protective against common allergies. Here's the nitty-gritty: For the study, which was published in the journal Pediatrics, scientists tracked 1,000 kids from age 5 through 11 and asked their parents to check in with their thumb sucking and nail biting habits every two years. They also ensured each child had an allergy test at the ages of 13 and 32.

The results seem to contradict long-standing beliefs about nail biting and thumb sucking being bad for us because of germs. NY Magazine's Science of Us site reports that during the study, 31 percent of the kids had some period in which they bit their nails or sucked their thumb — but that this same group were also more likely to sail through their allergy tests without their parents having to report any flare-ups. The group who were most likely to beat allergies overall, however, were those kids who both sucked their thumbs and bit their nails.

In case you're thinking, "Well there are a million and one ways kids' immunes systems work to beat allergies, so how can we be sure it was really the nail biting that made the difference?", Science of Us points out that the authors took into account different variables, such as whether or not the family had pets, whether or not the parents smoked, and socioeconomic status; furthermore, the researchers didn't find the same patterns when they tested for asthma and hay fever. In fact, this study is partial evidence for something called the "hygiene hypothesis."

The hygiene hypothesis holds that being anal over cleanliness in today's germ-obsessed society is making us more vulnerable to illness. How? Because lack of exposure to harmful microbes, parasites and infectious diseases early on in life suppressing the natural development of the immune system, which then increases our susceptibility to allergic diseases. Makes perfect sense when you think about it, right?

However, that doesn't mean that thumb sucking or nail biting is actually good for us. In a press release, study co-author Malcolm Sears and professor of medicine at Canada’s McMaster University warned against letting kids have complete free reign over their biting and sucking habits: "Our findings are consistent with the hygiene theory that early exposure to dirt or germs reduces the risk of developing allergies," he commented. "While we don't recommend that these habits should be encouraged, there does appear to be a positive side to these habits."

And as many of us know, nail biting is linked to a whole host of nasty side effects, such as dental problems, nail infections, warts, and even the spreading of the HPV virus. But judging from the results from this study, and the additional commentary from the study authors, it seems that balance is the key when it comes to nail biting. Whereas it's not really advisable to carry nail biting all the way into adulthood, if you've got kids, or know of children who are addicted to the habit, some gentle nagging may serve to benefit them in the long run more than a draconian bite detox plan will. And if you want to stop gnawing on your hands yourself, here are some of the best ways to beat nail biting. Your fingers are worth it!

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