Acta Derm Venereol 89
Acta Derm Venereol 2009; 89: 278–280
© 2009 The Authors. doi: 10.2340/00015555-0646
Journal Compilation © 2009 Acta Dermato-Venereologica. ISSN 0001-5555
Onychophagia can be explained as a kind of a compul-
sion that may cause destruction of the nails. Habitual
nail biting is a common behaviour among children and
young adults. By the age of 18 years the frequency of this
behaviour decreases, but it may persist in some adults.
Nail biting is an under-recognized problem, which may
occur on a continuum ranging from mild to severe. Nail
biting has received little attention in the psychiatric and
dermatological literature. Its position in widely accep-
ted classifications of psychiatric disorders (ICD-10 and
DSM-IV) remains unclear. This disorder seems to be re-
lated to obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorder. Here,
we present three case reports of onychophagia and co-
occurring psychopathological symptoms and discuss
the close relationship of onychophagia to obsessive-
compulsive spectrum disorder and possible treatment
modalities. Psychiatric evaluation of co-occurring psycho-
pathological symptoms in patients with onychophagia,
especially those with chronic, severe or complicated nail
biting, may be helpful in making a choice of individual
therapy. Serotonin re-uptake inhibitors seem to be the
treatment of choice in severe onychophagia. Key words:
onychophagia; nail biting; obsessive-compulsive spectrum
(Accepted January 19, 2009.)
Acta Derm Venereol 2009; 89: 278–280.
Jacek C. Szepietowski, Department of Dermatology, Vene-
reology and Allergology, Wroclaw Medical University, Ul.
Chalubinskiego 1, PL-50-368 Wroclaw, Poland. E-mail:
Onychophagia is defined as a chronic nail biting. This
condition should be distinguished from onychotilloma-
nia, another form of self-induced destruction of the nails
similar to onychophagia caused by recurrent picking and
manicuring of the nails. Habitual nail biting is a common
behaviour among children and young adults (1). How ever,
there are very few epidemiological data analysing the
frequency of this entity in the population, and most data
are limited to children and adolescents. It is estimated
that 28–33% of children between 7 and 10 years of age
and approximately 45% of teenagers are nail-biters (1).
By the age of 18 years the frequency of this behaviour
decreases, although it may persist in some adults (2).
The prevalence of nail biting among people in the age
range 60–69 years is believed to be between 4.5% and
10.7% (2, 3). In most cases nail biting seems to be only a
cosmetic problem. However, if uncontrolled, it can cause
serious morbidity. The most common complications are
severe damage to the cuticles and nails, paronychia and
secondary bacterial infection, self-inflicted gingival in-
juries, and dental problems (4, 5). Temporo-mandibular
dysfunction and osteomyelitis have also been reported as
a consequence of chronic nail biting (6, 7). In addition,
nail biting may lead to psychological problems in some
patients (e.g. significant distress). Nail biting is often
embarrassing and socially undesirable.
Here, we present three case reports of onychophagia
and co-occurring psychopathological symptoms and
discuss the close relationship of onychophagia with
obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorders, and possible
Case report 1
A 28-year-old female patient was diagnosed with panic disor-
der and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Onychophagia
was also recognized. No family anamnesis of psychiatric
disorders was found, and no alcohol or drug abuse was report-
ed. Symptoms of panic disorder appeared 4 years before the
first psychiatric consultation. Initially, she was diagnosed by
general practitioner as having “anxiety neurosis”. Mitral valve
prolapse syndrome was also diagnosed at the same time. The
anxiety neurosis was treated with amitriptyline, doxepin, and
lorazepam, with transient success. Two years later she discon-
tinued this therapy. After one additional year a panic anxiety
appeared again. At the same time symptoms of OCD occurred.
She had obsessions that her children could have an accident
and be hurt. She presented with compulsions of very frequent
controlling and checking her children. In addition, she also
reported nail biting, which had started when she was under 10
years of age. Psychiatric treatment with 175 mg clomipramine
daily was introduced. All symptoms of panic disorder, OCD
and onychophagia disappeared within 10 months. Pharmaco-
therapy was discontinued 2 months later. Clomipramine was
well tolerated and no adverse events were observed during the
Case report 2
A 17-year-old female patient was diagnosed with onychophagia.
No family anamnesis of psychiatric disorders and no alcohol
or drug abuse were noted. No psychiatric treatment had been
introduced in the past. The problem of onychophagia started
in early childhood when she was under 5 years of age, and had
continued until the time of examination. Due to the severity
Onychophagia as a Spectrum of Obsessive-compulsive Disorder
Przemysław PACAN1, Magdalena GRzESIAk1, Adam REICH2 and Jacek C. SzEPIETOWSkI2
Departments of 1Psychiatry and 2Dermatology, Venereology and Allergology, Wroclaw Medical University, Wroclaw, Poland
of the nail damage her family suggested that she should visit
a dermatologist. On dermatological examination total damage
of both thumb nails was seen (Fig. 1). The greater part of both
thumb nails was totally destroyed, and the remaining parts of
her nail plates were severely wrinkled with multiple cracks.
After the dermatological consultation the patient was referred
to a psychiatrist. Onychophagia without other mental disorders
was diagnosed during psychiatric examination. Because of the
severity of onychophagia psychopharmacotherapy was start-
ed. The patient received fluvoxamine, starting from 100 mg
daily, and increasing to 300 mg daily; however, there was no
marked improvement within 3 months. Fluvoxamine was then
changed to 100 mg daily sertraline. She was also instructed to
paint her nails with a lacquer. The nail biting decreased after
2 months. After another month she stopped painting her nails,
but continued on sertraline, and the symptoms of onychophagia
reappeared. Finally, she put false nails over her own nails while
continuing sertraline therapy. This procedure resulted in a total
re-growth of natural nails. At follow-up (one year later) she was
still free of symptoms of onychophagia.
Case report 3
A 35-year-old female patient with no family anamnesis of psy-
chiatric disorders and with no alcohol and drug abuse was refer-
red for psychiatric consultation by a dermatologist. When she
was 9 years old, “anxiety neurosis” had been diagnosed by her
general practitioner and she had been treated for 9 years, taking
diazepam and propranolol occasionally. The first symptoms of
onychophagia appeared in early childhood when she was under
5 years old. When she was 17 years old acne was recognized
by a dermatologist and she was treated with topical anti-acne
preparations. Despite anti-acne treatment she developed acne
excoriée, which was present until the psychiatric consultation.
During psychiatric examination panic disorder and onychophagia
(Fig. 2) were diagnosed. All of her fingernails were very short,
with longitudinal ridges and frayed free edges of the nail plates.
In some places partial loss of the nail plates was observed, as
well as nail wrinkling. The patient refused any dermatological
and psychiatric therapy and was lost to follow-up.
Bohne et al. (8) suggested that nail biting is an under-
recognized problem that may occur on a continuum
ranging from mild to severe. Nail biting has had little
attention in the psychiatric or dermatological litera-
ture. Its position in widely accepted classifications
of psychiatric disorders (ICD-10 and DSM-IV (9,
10)) remains unclear, as does its aetiology. Thus, it
is difficult to establish proper prevention and therapy
strategies. According to some studies (6, 11), nail bi-
ting (as well as hair pulling or skin picking) may be
caused by over-stimulation (due to stress or excitement)
or under-stimulation (due to boredom or inactivity).
Onychophagia can be treated as a kind of a compulsion
that may cause destruction of the nails. This disorder
seems to be related to obsessive-compulsive spectrum
disorder. Obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorder
overlaps with OCD in terms of clinical symptoms,
associated features (age of onset, clinical course and
comorbidity) and response to specific psychopharma-
cological and behavioural treatment (12). Obsessive-
compulsive spectrum disorders are characterized by
obsessive thoughts or preoccupations with body ap-
pearance (body dysmorphic disorder), body weight
(anorexia nervosa) or body illnesses (hypochondriasis),
or by stereotyped ritualistic behaviours, such as tics
(Tourette’s syndrome), hair pulling (trichotillomania),
sexual compulsions and pathological gambling. Besi-
des onychophagia, obsessive-compulsive tendencies
may manifest in dermatology as onychotillomania,
trichotillomania, skin picking, and acne excoriée (2, 13,
14). Recently these problems have been termed body
focused repetitive behaviours (BFRB) (6, 11). It has
been suggested that nail biting is related to high anxiety
and low self-esteem (1, 15). Patients with onychophagia
have been scored higher on obsessive-compulsiveness,
especially those who regarded their nail biting as a
serious problem (15). Grant & Christenson (16) found
that comorbid psychiatric disorders are frequent in
trichotillomania and chronic skin picking, but they
did not focus on onychophagia. Therefore, further
studies are needed to assess co-occurring anxiety and
OCD among patients with chronic onychophagia. It
would also be interesting to investigate whether nail
biting in childhood could predispose to OCD or other
psychiatric disorders in adulthood. Because of the lack
Fig. 1. Severe dystrophy of the thumb nails due to nail biting in patient 2.
Fig. 2. Nail lesions due to nail biting in patient 3.
Acta Derm Venereol 89
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P. Pacan et al.
of systematic surveys evaluating this problem, case
reports are very helpful in clinical practice to better
understand the nature of onychophagia and choose the
proper treatment strategy.
In all of the patients described here, the onset of ony-
chophagia occurred in childhood, similarly to the most
OCD cases. In some patients onychophagia seems not
to be an isolated problem, but may co-occur with other
psychopathological symptoms or mental disorders. In
the first patient described here, comorbidity with panic
disorder and OCD was diagnosed, while in the third
case comorbidity of onychophagia, acne excoriée and
panic disorder was found. In the latter case, both, ony-
chophagia and acne excoriée should be considered as
entities belonging to the obsessive-compulsive spectrum
Clomipramine appeared to be an effective, safe and
well-tolerated agent to control symptoms of OCD and
onychophagia in our first patient. Serotonin re-uptake
inhibitors (SRIs), such as clomipramine or sertraline
(as was reported in the second case), which are used in
the treatment of OCD, may also be considered a good
treatment option in onychophagia. Other authors also
considered SRIs as effective therapy for onychophagia
(11, 17). In addition, SRIs were documented to be ef-
fective in other psychodermatoses, such as trichotillo-
mania or body dysmorphic disorder (18, 19). It has
been suggested that pharmacotherapy is effective in
approximately 60–70% of patients with onychophagia
(11). On the other hand, behavioural therapy, including
self-monitoring and habit reversal also resulted in a
short-term reduction in nail biting behaviour (20).
Based on the cases described here, we conclude that
onychophagia cannot be considered as only a derma-
tological or a cosmetic problem, and that patients with
severe forms of nail biting should be examined by
psychiatrists. Psychiatric evaluation of co-occurring
psychopathological symptoms in these patients, es-
pecially those with chronic, severe or complicated
onychophagia, may be helpful in making a choice of
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