What is Dermatophagia ?

It is a type of OCD or obsessive compulsive disorder, wherein the affected individual tends to bite his/her own skin in a compulsive manner. Dermatophagia is derived from a combination of two Greek words meaning ‘skin’ and ‘to eat.’ This type of disorder involves compulsion, obsession and uneasiness, and is generally associated with presence of anxiety. Other doctors refer to dermatophagia as a type of behavior that is physically focused on the body, is repetitive in nature and results in some damage to the body, especially to the skin.

There are still others who describe dermatophagia as a type of self mutilation, which may or may not lead to serious consequences. A majority of the patients tend to elicit bleeding and discoloration, in addition to increased vulnerability to scarring, infections and development of bruises. Untreated cases of dermatophagia can, in severe cases, result in extensive damage to the skin which may turn permanent.

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The patients of dermatophagia are sometimes known as ‘wolf biters’, due to the legend of werewolves who were considered to chew on the flesh of the victim. However, in the case of dermatophagia, the patients prey on their own skin, particularly the skin occurring on their fingers.

Individuals affected by dermatophagia have been found to chew off the skin situated along the nail region, leading to bleeding and discoloration. It has also been reported that some patients chew on other areas of the body like the cheeks, lips and mouth, resulting in development of blisters. As per the data available, the incidence rate of dermatophagia is greater in women as compared to men. The patients generally complain of experiencing an overwhelming urge or desire to chew on their skin, which tends to occur during the presence of dead or loose skin; at times of unpleasant events; or when going through anxious periods. The disorder can be compared to other condition known as trichophagia, which involves excessive and compulsive biting, eating and pulling of one’s hair.

Dermatophagia Symptoms

Some of the signs and symptoms of dermatophagia are as follows:

  • Bleeding from affected skin
  • Presence of blisters in the affected areas
  • Discoloration of affected skin
  • Uneven nature of affected skin
  • Presence of anxiety
  • Occurrence of low self-esteem in patients
  • Obsessive and compulsive behaviors may be observed in the patients
  • The nail folds, calluses, cuticles and hangnails are primary subjected to compulsive biting.
  • Dermatophagia can lead to formation of emotional abnormalities and other physical effects, other than those discussed above.
  • With the passage of time, the patients may experience embarrassment due to their physical appearance, eventually leading to withdrawal from social and public life so as to avoid judgment and scrutiny.

Causes of Dermatophagia

Some of the probable causes of dermatophagia are listed below:

  • Genetics; a family history of the disorder may increase the risk of developing dermatophagia
  • Presence of stress, wherein the patient may engage in skin biting to alleviate stress
  • Some trauma during the childhood years
  • Imbalances occurring in the neurological sections
  • Presence of body dysmorphic disorder
  • Presence of boredom may result in skin biting as a form of stimulation
  • Presence of nervousness can make dermatophagia patients to chew skin, so as to reduce anxiety
  • Presence of obsessive compulsive disorder
  • Presence of depression

It may be noted that the above listed possible causes generally result in an overpowering desire or itch within the patients, which can be relieved via engaging in dermatophagia. Patients have indicated that skin biting acts as a distractive, self-soothing or stimulating activity.

Dermatophagia Treatment

Treatment for dermatophagia involves both psychological and medical treatment, which are discussed below:

  • Cognitive-Behavioral therapy: This is one of the forms of psychotherapy, wherein a patient is first encouraged to talk about the condition. His/her reasons for engaging in the abnormal behavior is understood. Also, the ways in which dermatophagia alleviates the different urges are elucidated by the patient. After this, the therapist modifies the cognition of the patient and explains, point-by-point, about how the behavior is just a manifestation and an incorrect belief of the patient. The therapist clarifies that skin biting is doing more permanent harm, than temporary good. Once the patient accepts that his/her cognition of the different situations and emotions are misplaced, even in miniscule degrees, then the therapist resorts to modification of behavior. The dermatophagia patient is taught to engage in positive behaviors, whenever the urge to chew on the skin arises. He/she may be told to count sheep, or write down the thoughts racing through the mind, drink water, exercise, etc.; anything that is positive and diverts the attention from biting the skin. This therapy is a long drawn process and combined with medical therapy.
  • Behavior modification therapy: This is a direct way to resolve the skin biting problem. For example, the nails may be painted with foul smelling nail polish, so that whenever a dermatophagia affected individual tries to chew off the skin near the nails, he/she will smell that unpleasant odor and get discouraged to proceed to the abnormal activity.
  • Antidepressants may be prescribed by doctors to alleviate compulsiveness, depression and other associated anomalies with dermatophagia.

Dermatophagia Pictures

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