What is dermatophagia?

Mental Health
Dermatophagia is a psychological condition in which a person compulsively bites, chews, gnaws, or eats their skin. It often affects the skin around people’s fingers.

Dermatophagia is an emerging concept in mental health research. For this reason, there have been few studies into precisely what it is and how it differs from other conditions.

According to the TLC Foundation for Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors, mental health specialists sometimes classify dermatophagia as an “obsessive-compulsive and related disorder.”

This means that it is related to or part of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). With this condition, a person has ongoing, uncontrollable, and recurring thoughts and behaviors.

In this article, learn more about dermatophagia, including the symptoms, possible causes, and treatment options.


Symptoms

Anxious or nervous person chewing or biting skin and nails.
Dermatophagia is the compulsive chewing or biting of the skin.

A person with dermatophagia compulsively bites, gnaws, or eats their skin. This might leave their skin raw. This damage to the skin can also increase the risk of developing a skin infection.

Some experts think that dermatophagia is a body-focused repetitive behavior. Other similar behaviors include:

  • skin picking
  • nail biting
  • hair pulling
  • cheek biting

According to research from 2015, a person with an obsessive-compulsive and related disorder may experience a sense of shame due to their condition. This feeling may occur due to the diminishing stigma around mental health issues, or it may be specific to a person’s symptoms.


Causes

It is not clear why some people develop dermatophagia. According to the TLC Foundation for Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors, both genetic and social factors may have a role.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, people with OCD may be more likely to have family members that also have OCD. It is not clear whether this is genetic, arises from learned behaviors, or is due to a combination of these factors.

It is also not clear whether factors that affect whether a person will develop OCD also have the same role in people with dermatophagia.


Diagnosis

Because dermatophagia is a fairly new concept in mental health research, a doctor may not necessarily be able to make a specific diagnosis.

It is more likely that a doctor would diagnose or classify this under another related condition, such as OCD.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), diagnosing OCD is complex. A doctor will only make a diagnosis if:

  • the person’s thoughts and behaviors occur chronically in an ongoing, uncontrollable way
  • the dermatophagia causes distress or significantly interferes with the person’s life
  • there are no medications or other health conditions that might be causing the dermatophagia
  • the dermatophagia is not related to another type of mental health condition


Treatment

Therapist in counseling session talking with patient
Cognitive behavioral therapy can help treat dermatophagia.

The treatment a doctor suggests will depend on the suspected causes of the dermatophagia.

If a doctor thinks a person’s dermatophagia is a type of OCD, they may suggest behavioral therapy, medication, or a combination of the two.

Research suggests that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be an effective way of treating OCD and conditions related to it.

However, a doctor may also think that dermatophagia is explainable by something other than OCD. In this case, they will likely suggest a different treatment plan.

Long-term management will depend on what causes dermatophagia and how well treatment methods work.

It could be that CBT gives a person the skills to reduce the symptoms of dermatophagia, or they may need medication to help them control the condition.

If another underlying mental health condition is causing dermatophagia, a doctor will aim to treat that first.

Outlook

As dermatophagia is an emerging concept in mental health research, a person’s outlook will depend on what a doctor thinks the key causes are.

In any case, a medical professional is best placed to help a person work out why they have dermatophagia and help them treat the condition.

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