Most people would never think that biting their nails could put them in the hospital. That was the case for Ricky Kennedy, a 57-year-old grandfather from Dumbarton, Scotland. An infection from a small cut on his thumb became deadly when it turned into sepsis and spread through his body.
Kennedy says he never expected his illness came from the minuscule cut on his finger.
The Scottish man says he did not do anything out of the ordinary. He simply chewed at his thumbnail. This caused him to develop a blister that turned into an infection. When he grew concerned, he went to his family doctor, who prescribed antibiotics. Unfortunately for Kennedy, it was already too late. The infection had started to spread throughout his body.
Nail biting won’t necessarily lead to health problems…. but it’s possible.
There are a lot of reasons why people bite their nails. Most of the time, it seems to be a stress response. People bite their nails for the same reason they play with stress balls or jiggle their leg: they’re feeling fidgety. It can also be related to ADHD, OCD, anxiety problems, and tic disorders.
People who bite their nails aren’t alone. It’s estimated that 20 to 30 percent of the population bites their nails. These numbers jump up to 45 percent for teenagers, and they’re high for children, as well.
“[Kids] do all sorts of stuff that we might be tempted to do as adults but we’re like, ‘Oh no! I can’t do that!’” says Tracy Foose, an associate professor of psychiatry at UCSF School of Medicine. “Almost the two dirtiest parts of your body are hanging out together as you bite your nails. I’m kind of making myself not want to do it as I say that.”
To the Kennedy family’s shock, the situation was scarier than they had ever imagined.
An ambulance rushed Kennedy to the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital. Doctors told his wife he had a 50 percent chance of making it back home alive. He spent months in the hospital, most of which he can’t remember.
Now, he is alive with his family, but he still is not well. Kennedy will have to undergo surgery to repair the bones that have eroded in his collarbone.
“I had bitten my nail like that hundreds of times before so to think it almost killed me is terrifying,” he said.
Sepsis can lead to septic shock, which is as scary as it sounds.
Sepsis is a deadly complication of an infection. It occurs when the body reacts to an infection by attacking its own organs and other systems. If patients do survive, they might still have complications for the rest of their lives.
If the disease continues without attention, patients can develop septic shock. This can cause blood pressure to drop suddenly and dramatically and lead to death.
To develop sepsis from biting your nails is unusual, though. Most cases happen after pneumonia or infections in the kidneys and abdomen.
People with sepsis might go on to experience blood clots, gangrene, or even brain damage.
Nail biters expose themselves to a lot of bacteria.
“The oral cavity is a virtual petri dish and [biting] can result in the transfer of yeast and bacteria that are normally found in the mouth but should not be on the nails and fingers,” said Dr. Dana Stern, assistant clinical professor of Dermatology at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City.
“[This] can consequently result in infections of the nail folds. Picture red, inflamed, swollen skin surrounding the nail. Conversely, putting your unwashed fingers in your mouth can transfer germs to your mouth, raising the risk of catching a cold or other illness.”
And eating nasty germs from under our nails isn’t the worst thing that can happen, either. Nail biters also risk ingrown nails, skin infections, and even facial warts or hand herpes.
So, how do we stop biting?
There are a lot of different ways experts recommend curbing your nail-biting habit. This might be painting your nails with bitter polish. You could get a gel manicure for a physical reminder. Some people try to find another fidgety habit that helps get the stress and excess energy out. You can squeeze on a stress ball, play with a fidget spinner, or play with silly putty.
The best way, though? Figure out what triggers your habit and try to face it head-on.
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