For Lauren Nichols, nail-biting was a lifelong habit that her parents implored her to kick.
Now, after experiencing a health scare brought on by the common tic, the 18-year-old says she’s done chewing her fingernails for good — and she hopes others stop too.
“At first I didn’t think it was anything serious, but it kept getting worse,” Nichols tells PEOPLE of her bout with paronychia, a nail infection caused by trauma to the cuticles.
The Texas college student shared her story in a TikTok video, tracking her left middle finger’s progression from slightly infected to alarmingly inflamed last month. “I almost had to get the tip of my finger amputated because I bite my nails,” she said in the video.
“plz watch… it could save your finger’s life 🥺,” she captioned the post, which has been viewed more than 2 million times and garnered some 20,000 comments.
When the problem area around her finger nail grew and became painful, Nichols booked a doctor’s appointment, where she was prescribed antibiotics to treat the infection. Days later, the medication didn’t make much of a difference, and surgery became necessary.
Since having the growth removed, Nichols says she’s happy to have her digits back to normal, even if she still has to fight the desire to resume biting them.
“It’s good now, my finger looks a little weird but it healed fine,” she says, adding that she purchased a fidget toy to channel her nervousness and replace the old habit. “I’ve always been a more anxious person, and [nail-biting] is one of the ways I’ve coped.”
When she gets the impulse to chew her nails now, she reminds herself of the panicked hospital visits and painful fingertips to curb the urge.
“It’s still kind of tender to the touch, so if I ever start trying to bite my nails or think about it, it’s still there as a reminder to not,” says Nichols. “I definitely still think about it, but I’ve stopped myself many times because that was not a fun experience.”
As for the viral TikTok that resonated with so many, Nichols isn’t sure why it caught on so strongly (she says has “funnier ones” she wishes trended as much). She says people even recognize her from the video, which she made on a random morning at 3 a.m.
“Most people found out primarily through the TikTok and now people recognize me from it and they’re like, ‘Ew, that’s so gross!'” she jokes. “I had no idea this would blow up.”
Her guess is that it’s a “relatable” subject. In fact, an estimated 20 to 30 percent of people across all age groups habitually bite their nails, according to the National Institutes of Health, which notes that the practice can lead to oral conditions as well.
“Just because it hasn’t happened before, doesn’t mean it can’t happen to you. I’d been doing it for years and this is the first time I had serious consequences,” Nichols says. “If you do get paronychia, take it seriously because it can get a lot worse very quickly.”
She adds: “If I would have stopped it earlier, then it wouldn’t have gotten as bad as it did, but because I didn’t know what it was, it got worse.”