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What Is Dermatophagia?

By Andy Josiah
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Dermatophagia is a medical condition or compulsive form of behavior that is characterized by biting one’s skin. The term is formed from the joining of the Greek words for “skin” and “to eat.” The most common site of the biting is the skin around the finger nails. Dermatophagia is classified as a type of obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD), which is an anxiety disorder that includes compulsion, obsession and uneasiness as some of its major characteristics. Dermatophagia, like other disorders of its ilk, is more common in females than in males.

People who have dermatophagia typically have an irresistible urge to chew their skin. This urge could be triggered by a period of apprehension or the presence of dead or loose skin. The fingers, which are the main victims of this compulsion, can bleed or get discolored and disfigured with extended biting. Other common areas of dermatophagia include the inside of one’s mouth, lips and cheeks. This could lead to blisters developing in these areas.

Dermatophagia is occasionally accompanied by another disorder, dermatillomania. Also known as compulsive skin picking (CSP), dermatillomania refers to the picking of one’s own skin, which could be anywhere on the body. The most common sites, however, are the chest, back, shoulders, face, gums, scalp, stomach, toes and fingers. It is sometimes classified as a body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), which is characterized as an intense preoccupation with one’s perceived physical defects.

Also considered related to dermatophagia is trichophagia. The term trichophagia is also formed from the combination of two Greek words, “hair” and “to eat.” People who suffer from trichophagia pull their own hair and eat it, which may result in stomach pain and indigestion. On some occasions, though, the sufferer may pull out the hair of another person to ingest. Some physicians have suggested that the type of self-injury that dermatophagia victims inflict may be a symptom of Lesch–Nyhan syndrome (LNS), which is caused by the lack of the enzyme hypoxanthine-guanine phosphoribosyltransferase (HGPRT). This disorder is, however, exceedingly rare.

Although there have been few studies done on dermatophagia, some people are able to effectively combat this disorder. The most popular form of treatment is behavioral therapy. This can involve painting finger nails with nail polish that emits an unpleasant smell or using artificial nails made out of acrylic or gel to discourage the biting.

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Discussion Comments
By anon991452 — On Jun 22, 2015

I had OCD as a kid,but didn't develop the dermatophagia until I was 12 years old. People don't understand that it's a real disorder and it's very hard to stop. It's been going on for six years.

By anon926760 — On Jan 20, 2014

I bite the inside of my mouth and pick and bite at my cuticles constantly. I love the pain. I also have severe anxiety and depression. I take Lexapro as an antidepressant and for anxiety. I am only 16 years old. I have been living life, hating myself and compulsively destroying myself from the inside out. I wish I would have realized sooner, even though nothing is helping.

By anon925384 — On Jan 11, 2014

I bite the insides of my mouth. I bite until I bleed. I don't realize I'm doing this until I feel pain. The insides of my cheeks have scars. I've been doing this for over twenty years.

By anon347401 — On Sep 06, 2013

Thank you anon341517! A nail file helped me making the skin smoother so I don't feel the urge to bite and pick. I never thought of that! So far I had only mixed results with nail scissors. But the nail file is great!

By anon341517 — On Jul 12, 2013

I've been biting the skin around my nails for years. I'm so tired of doing this to myself. What has been working for the urge to pick the loose and dead skin is that I eliminate it. Get a nail file and file the areas that are affected by the biting. Go in the direction that the skin would grow. Your fingers will instantly be smooth. No kidding. There's nothing there to bite!

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