Dermatophagia is a disorder where a person feels the urge to bite his or her own skin, usually the skin around the fingernails. It comes from two Greek words, “derma,” which means “skin,” and “phagein,” which means “to devour” or “to eat.” This impulse control disorder is commonly associated with Dermatillomania which is the impulsive picking at one’s skin, and with trichophagia which is another disorder involving compulsive biting of hair. Dermatophagia is also associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
People who suffer from dermatophagia mainly exhibit skin biting or chewing when they are tense, stressed, anxious, or bored. They also bite their skin if they see loose or dead skin. As mentioned earlier, they bite and chew the skin surrounding their fingernails, although they can also bite the skin around other joints. Some even bite the inside of their mouths, cheeks, or their lips. Although they feel the pain due to self-biting, they still find relief from what they are doing, making them continue with this behavior.
Because of constant compulsive skin picking, blisters, discolored skin and/or bleeding skin are usually noted in areas that they bite. Some have hangnails and calloused skin. Like people with dermatillomania, these people are also at risk of skin infections and are also prone to further tissue damage.
People with dermatophagia may also suffer from low self-esteem and embarrassment, primarily because of their appearance. These people tend to avoid interacting with other people to avoid being scrutinized and judged by other people.
As mentioned earlier, dermatophagia is linked with OCD, like other impulse control disorders. This may hold true if the reason why a patient bites his skin is because he is bothered with imperfections on his skin. It is also believed that dermatophagia is caused by stress, and for some patients, boredom. While most persons with dermatophagia find relief by skin biting, others do it to release from their boredom or to stimulate themselves. It is also hypothesized that trauma during early childhood may also cause skin biting. Other theories suggest the role of imbalances in the central nervous system and genetics in causing dermatophagia.
At present, there is no drug yet developed specifically for dermatophagia. However, some medications used in treating anxiety disorders and antidepressants may be used for people with dermatophagia. Examples of these are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI), a group of drugs commonly used by patients with OCD. Before taking these or any other type of medication, however, patients are advised to consult with a psychiatrist.
There are also interventions that do not involve drugs. These include psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, and other measures that help in inhibiting the behavior. Usual psychotherapy interventions include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), self-monitoring, and habit reversal training. In these therapies, the patient is assisted to become more aware of his condition. Patients are also facilitated and assisted in discovering what triggers biting of their skin. Parents with children suffering from dermatophagia may also set a rewards system for their children. For example, they can make a contract showing that they will give something that the child wants if he does not bite his skin for a day or for a week.
Persons with dermatophagia are also advised to take measures that help in stopping the undesirable behavior. Mouth guards can be used to avoid skin biting. Some people use nail polish, either ordinary ones or those with bitter flavoring, in order to discourage them from biting the skin surrounding their fingernails. Distraction techniques can also be done. Patients may chew on sugar-free gum just to preoccupy their mouths and distract their attention from biting their skin. They may also learn a hobby or two that can make their hands busy in order to keep them from biting the skin on all sides of their fingernails. For those persons with dermatophagia who feel the strong urge to bite their skin as a stress relief measure, they can be taught other ways to relax and reduce stress.
This disorder does not really expose a person to any life threatening risks. However, the psycho-social causes and effects of this disorder can be devastating to the patient. Remedies whether by way of medication or therapies should definitely be sought so that the patient can get back to living his life normally.
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