What Is Dermatophagia? Everything to Know

Medically Reviewed By Nicole Washington, DO, MPH
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Dermatophagia is a type of body focused repetitive behavior (BFRB) where the individual bites their own skin. This typically includes skin on the fingers, hands, or forearm. “Derma” means “skin,” and “phagia” refers to eating. However, individuals with dermatophagia do not necessarily ingest their own skin.

In 2005, medical professionals suggested the phrase “dermatodaxia” instead, as “daxia” refers to the act of biting. You may see either term referenced in literature about the condition. Other terms include “chewing pads” and “wolf biter.”

BFRBs are classified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) under “obsessive-compulsive and related disorders.”

Read on to learn more about dermatophagia. This article includes information about causes and symptoms of the condition, as well as how to treat it, when to contact a doctor, and more.

What are the symptoms of dermatophagia?

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The main symptom of dermatophagia is biting the skin. This can include biting:

  • fingers
  • nail folds
  • hangnails
  • knuckles
  • cuticles
  • hands
  • forearms

Dermatophagia can also result in thickened skin or nodules. An individual may bite one location repeatedly, or they may bite multiple areas.

An individual with dermatophagia may also present symptoms of other BFRBs. These can include:

  • dermatillomania, which is a skin picking condition
  • trichotillomania, which is a hair pulling condition
  • onychophagia, which is a nail biting condition

If you have dermatophagia, you may also experience anxiety, which can worsen symptoms of BFRBs.

Learn more about anxiety symptoms and treatment.

How is dermatophagia treated?

Treatments for dermatophagia focus on helping the individual to change habits. This includes habit reversal training (HRT), a type of behavioral intervention for treating conditions related to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Habit reversal training involves:

  • building awareness of your urge to bite your skin
  • helping you tolerate the desire to bite
  • identifying anything that triggers or exacerbates your desire to bite your skin
  • reducing cues that may lead to skin biting
  • helping you develop a different response to the urge to bite

Your doctor or mental health team may also recommend cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT can help you to understand your behavior and why you feel the urge to bite your skin. It can also provide you with coping mechanisms for behaviors and feelings surrounding your condition.

Learn more about CBT.

While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not yet approved any medication for the treatment of BFRBs, your doctor may recommend an off-label trial of drugs typically used to treat OCD. Let your doctor know if you are experiencing symptoms of BFRB.

What causes dermatophagia?

Researchers do not know what causes dermatophagia.

One study found that there might be a relationship between dermatophagia and life events in school-aged children and adolescents. This means that skin biting might begin or be triggered by events in your life that cause stress or anxiety.

It is also possible that genetic factors play a role in the development of dermatophagia. Research into this theory is ongoing.

When should I contact a doctor?

Contact your doctor as soon as you become aware of your symptoms, particularly if they cause you anxiety or if you have a skin infection.

Some people with dermatophagia do not feel ready to change their skin biting habits. Your doctor will be able to refer you to a mental health professional who treats BFRBs, and they will explain to you what treatments they can offer you when you feel ready.

How is dermatophagia diagnosed?

In order to diagnose dermatophagia, your doctor will look at your medical history and ask you questions about your symptoms. They may also refer you to a mental health professional who specializes in BFRBs.

For a BFRB diagnosis, the following criteria must apply:

  • Skin biting must not occur as a result of a tic.
  • It must not be caused by an intention to self-harm.
  • Autoimmune conditions and dermatological conditions need to be ruled out.
  • Skin biting should not be a result of another disorder, such as body dysmorphic disorder (BDD).

Additionally, a BFRB will usually cause disruption to social, occupational, or daily functioning.

What are the complications of dermatophagia?

Frequently biting the skin can result in complications affecting the skin. These include:

  • bleeding
  • ulceration
  • infection

If you have dermatophagia, it can also affect the way you feel about yourself. For example, it can lead to:

  • social anxiety
  • embarrassment
  • depression
  • low self-esteem

In addition to helping you reduce or stop skin biting, your mental health team will be able to provide you with coping mechanisms for dealing with these feelings.

Frequently asked questions

Here are additional common questions people ask about dermatophagia.

Is dermatophagia a form of OCD?

Dermatophagia and OCD are different diagnoses. Currently, the DSM-5 categorizes BFRBs as “obsessive-compulsive and related disorders.” While dermatophagia is not the same as OCD, they do share some clinical features. Learn more about OCD.

How common is dermatophagia?

BFRBs such as dermatophagia have previously been considered rare. However, a 2018 study found that the prevalence of BFRB may be greater than medical professionals have previously believed. For example, 59.55% of people reported occasionally engaging in some type of BFRB, while 12.27% of people met criteria that would indicate a BFRB diagnosis.

Summary

Dermatophagia is a condition where an individual bites their own skin. This typically includes the skin on their fingers, hands, or forearm.

The cause of dermatophagia is unknown. Although there is currently no FDA-approved medication for the treatment of dermatophagia, habit reversal training and CBT may help with alleviating and managing symptoms.

Contact your doctor if you have concerns about dermatophagia. They will be able to refer you to a mental health specialist.

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Medical Reviewer: Nicole Washington, DO, MPH
Last Review Date: 2022 Jun 26
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