Dermatophagia: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

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dermatophagiaBiting your nails is often seen with stressful situations and is a widely accepted common habit.

When the biting of the nails extends to chewing on the skin around the fingers, it can be an unnerving obsession, for the person and onlookers.

Dermatophagia may be a foreign label, but is a more widespread disorder than you may think. We will learn more about this condition and how to stop dermatophagia.

What Is Dermatophagia?

Dermatophagia is a medical condition that falls under the group of obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD). The term dermatophagia comes from the Greek words “skin” and “to eat,” so people with this condition are known as Wolf Biters.

Dermatophagia involves biting or chewing your skin, mostly around the fingertips, but can include skin inside of mouth, cheeks, and lips. With the fingers, it involves the cuticles, nail folds, and any calluses and hangnails.

It usually starts out of the need to combat stress or other uncomfortable situations and quickly becomes a compulsion to feel a sensation of pain or pleasure. As it continues, you can become severely withdrawn from social activities as you feel a sense of embarrassment at the sight of the fingers. Despite this, many cannot just stop chewing the skin away.

This type of anxiety disorder occurs in higher numbers among females. Behavior such as this must be formally recognized and treated before blisters and permanent physical damage to the skin results.

Dermatophagia Causes

It may appear those with dermatophagia have this disorder because they enjoy the pleasure they derive from the sensation of pulling on loose skin. This can occur with the relief one may experience with the biting on the skin, and repeats the activity when relief dissipates. The cause behind this condition can go much deeper than just being a habit.

Dermatophagia as a defense mechanism can be linked to:

  • Stress
  • Childhood trauma
  • Genetics
  • Boredom
  • Depression
  • Nervousness
  • Chemical imbalance
  • Obsession with body image

Dermatophagia Signs and Symptoms

The signs and symptoms of this type of anxiety disorder are obviously visible when the fingers are targeted. With some sites of dermatophagia being out of sight, there are non-prevalent signs to watch for such as:

  • Bleeding
  • Calluses
  • Blisters
  • Red fingertips
  • Discoloration
  • Ridges on skin
  • Anxiety
  • Low self-esteem
  • Obsessive behavior
  • Compulsion

To understand the importance of the symptoms of dermatophagia, let’s take a more in-depth look at the most common signs.

1. Skin Discoloration

The color of the skin around the nail as well as the coloring of the nailbeds will change due to the dermatophagia. It happens over time as the act becomes a habit, whether the person notices it or performs the chewing subconsciously.

2. Bleeding

When the skin surrounding the nails appears to be bleeding, or has bled, it is an obvious sign of dermatophagia. If you notice this once or twice, it is more likely to be an incident rather than a habit.

3. Skin Damage

The tough surface of the fingertips and the sensitive skin around the bottom of the nails can have ridges and have the top surface missing with dermatophagia. There will be scars signaling it is an ongoing habit.

4. Calluses

The damage to the skin can form into calluses with dermatophagia. The bitten areas will harden and change shape. These calluses can lead to open wounds and infections.

Dermatophagia Treatment

There is no dermatophagia cure per se, but there are treatments to help lessen the urge. Treatments can include both psychologic and medical therapies.

1. Behavior Modification Therapy

By replacing the act of chewing the skin with a less harmful habit, the person may be able to have a better existence, physically and mentally. With behavior modification therapy, the patient is encouraged to use a special type of nail polish that emits a pungent odor. By having an unpleasant smell when attempting to gnaw on the skin near the nails, you may be able to break such a habit.

Another form of similar therapy is the use of artificial nails. Fake nails usually contain acrylic or gel components, which give a bad taste.

2. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Leading psychotherapeutic therapy is often referred to as cognitive behavioral therapy. The treatment encourages the patient to discuss the reason and cause of the physical habit of biting and chewing their nails and skin. The intention is to stop the behavior by setting goals to be reached by the patient with the help of the therapist.

3. Medical Therapy

In conjunction with psychological therapy, or on its own, many professionals use a form of medical treatment with dermatophagia. It may include the use of antidepressant medication to target any psychological characteristic of the disorder. It will also treat the depression that results from withdrawing from society due to the appearance of the affected site. The use of antidepressants must be monitored by a professional to prevent overuse or abuse of the drug.

Dermatophagia is a common problem for every two out of seven people. Because of its unacceptable habit of constant biting and chewing of the skin, it often goes undiagnosed. Many patients are embarrassed by the act but need either medical or psychological treatment. It is not as easy as telling someone to stop.

There are various factors behind dermatophagia, including triggering stressors, genetics, past trauma, and even a chemical imbalance. If it is left untreated, the damage to the skin can lead to infected lesions, not to mention the irreversible consequences on the patient’s emotional well-being.

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