Nail-biting and thumb-sucking may not be all bad

young boy biting his fingernails

Nail-biting and thumb-sucking bring germs into the mouth — and possibly fewer allergies, too.  


There are plenty of reasons to tell kids not to bite their nails or suck their thumbs. Raw fingernail areas pick up infection, and thumbs can eventually move teeth into the wrong place. Not to mention these habits slop spit everywhere. But these bad habits might actually good for something: Kids who sucked their thumbs or chewed their nails had lower rates of allergic reactions in lab tests, a new study finds.

The results come from a group of more than 1,000 children in New Zealand. When the kids were ages 5, 7, 9 and 11, their parents were asked if the kids sucked their thumbs or bit their nails. At age 13, the kids came into a clinic for an allergen skin prick test. That’s a procedure in which small drops of common allergens such as pet dander, wool, dust mites and fungus are put into a scratch on the skin to see if they elicit a reaction.

Kids whose parents said “certainly” to the question of thumb-sucking or nail-biting were less likely to react to allergens in the skin prick test, respiratory doctor Robert Hancox of the University of Otago in New Zealand and colleagues report July 11 in Pediatrics. And this benefit seemed to last. The childhood thumb-suckers and nail-biters still had fewer allergic reactions at age 32.

The results fit with other examples of the benefits of germs. Babies whose parents cleaned dirty pacifiersby popping them into their own mouths were more protected against allergies. And urban babies exposed to roaches, mice and cats had fewer allergies, too. These scenarios all get more germs in and on kids’ bodies. And that may be a good thing. An idea called the hygiene hypothesis holds that exposure to germs early in life can train the immune system to behave itself, preventing overreactions that may lead to allergies and asthma.

It might be the case that germy mouths bring benefits, but only when kids are young. Hancox and his colleagues don’t know when the kids in their study first started sucking thumbs or biting nails, but having spent time around little babies, I’m guessing it was pretty early.

So does this result mean that parents shouldn’t discourage — or even encourage — these habits? Hancox demurs. “We don’t have enough evidence to suggest that parents change what they do,” he says. Still, the results may offer some psychological soothing, he says. “Perhaps if children have habits that are difficult to break, there is some consolation for parents that there might be a reduced risk of developing allergy.”

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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