When a person bites their nails, it's considered a bad habit. But when they start biting the skin around the nails, causing bleeding, unsightly scars, and skin discoloration, it's a symptom of dermatophagia, a body-focused repetitive behavior. People suffering from dermatophagia are sometimes called “wolf biters” because they bite off chunks of flesh. Dermatophagia benefits from treatment, but the treatment varies based on the age of the person, as well as the severity of symptoms.
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The first noticeable symptom of dermatophagia is bleeding. When somebody tries to bite off a bit of torn skin next to a fingernail, they can easily bite too deeply and cause bleeding. It can happen to anybody and it's not a reason for concern. But those who suffer from dermatophagia cause bleeding all the time and are not even bothered by it. Sometimes they don't even notice it. Or they may even find the pain pleasant because it offers relief from feelings of boredom or anxiety.
The second symptom involves biting compulsively and constantly, especially under pressure. After some time, people often stop biting their nails and skin because the scars look ugly and feel embarrassing. Friends and family members may point out their hands look ugly and suggest they stop. However, people with dermatophagia do not stop biting when stress and anxiety pile up. Biting to reduce stress can cause even deeper wounds, uglier scars, and increased feelings of embarrassment.
The third symptom is skin damage. People with dermatophagia have hands with thin, discolored skin, scars around the nails, callouses or hangnails. These symptoms are not just ugly to look at or damaging to a person's self-esteem but constantly biting nails and skin is bad for health. The constant exchange of bacteria between mouth and fingers, as well as having open wounds, can cause skin infections and result in tissue damage.
Research links body-focused repetitive behaviors to multiple causes including genetics, physical disorders, hormones, or psychological issues. Dermatophagia, in particular, is closely related to stress and anxiety since biting often becomes an emotionally soothing behavior aimed to deal with strong feelings.
Dermatophagia is classified as a body-focused repetitive behavior (BFRB), an umbrella term for behaviors such as dermatillomania (skin picking) and trich (hair-pulling). All these conditions can generally be described as compulsive behaviors with similar traits. BFRBs tend to start in a period of life where a person experiences hormonal changes and heightened anxiety and stress, usually early adolescence.
For information on the skin picking disorder (Dermatillomania), symptoms, causes and treatment methods, get the Complete Guide to Skin Picking Disorders.