Imagine one day feeling perfectly fine, you go about your daily routine and nothing’s out of the norm. Then suddenly you feel like you’re getting the flu, only the symptoms are getting much worse by the hour. Eventually, you realize that you don’t have the flu at all, you have something much more severe – sepsis, and to top it off, biting your nails contributed to it.
How Nail Biting Can Turn Into A Big Problem
In 2018, 57-year-old grandfather, Ricky Kennedy of Scotland had a close call with sepsis after a life-long habit of nail-biting suddenly caught up with him.
“I had bitten my nail like that hundreds of times before so to think it almost killed me is terrifying. I was in so much pain, I couldn’t move. I thought I was having a heart attack and I really did think I was going to die.” he recalls.
Kennedy had accidentally damaged his nail bed with nail-biting and noticed a blister starting to form on his thumb. What at first seemed harmless landed him in the hospital for months, fighting for his life!
“If it wasn’t for Ghislaine [his 65-year-old wife] phoning an ambulance I would be dead,” says Kennedy.
In the same year this is exactly the same thing that happened to Luke Hanoman, a 28-year-old warehouse operator and father of two. Luke had a nervous habit of biting his nails and after chewing down on the skin lining the side of his nail in July last year, he suddenly started to have flu-like symptoms. The symptoms started out as cold sweats, shaking, and overheating – pretty typical signs of any flu. Things started to become worrisome when Luke’s fingers swelled up, he had unbearable throbbing, and he could no longer focus (1).
Luke endured his symptoms for an entire week, thinking he could sleep off his “flu”. Luckily, his mom had an intuition that something was gravely wrong and got Luke to a hospital (1).
The doctors immediately knew Luke’s situation was dire – he had a high temperature and red lines all over his body, a common sign of spreading infection. They observed him for 24 hours, put him on antibiotics for four days, and treated the infection in his finger. Luke found out after the fact just how close to death he really was, and it was all because he bit his fingernail (1).
The crevice between your nails and fingers is a breeding ground for bacteria like salmonella and E.coli (5). Habitual nail biters often bite down on the skin around their fingers leaving open wounds to pick up more bacteria (5). The bacteria buildup in these wounds leaves nail biters susceptible to contracting infections, which is exactly what happened to Luke (5).
What is Sepsis?
It’s scary to think that an illness that so closely resembles the flu can actually be deadly. So what exactly is sepsis? It’s the body’s extreme reaction to a bacterial infection you already have, whether that be in your skin, urinary tract, lungs, or elsewhere (2). Not all injuries result in sepsis, it mostly occurs after traumatic injuries, like burns (6).
Sepsis is life-threatening and can cause rapid tissue damage, organ failure, and death when not treated in time (2). Some symptoms those with sepsis may experience include disorientation, shortness of breath, an increased heart rate, extreme pain, and/or clammy skin (2).
Who’s at Risk of Sepsis?
Like most illnesses, the very young and old are especially susceptible to developing sepsis (3). You may also be at risk for contracting sepsis if you have a weakened immune system, a chronic illness, and/or a severe wound (3).
Spending a lot of time in the hospital is another circumstance that can increase your risk of developing sepsis (3). You can go into the hospital to treat one problem and end up with an entirely different medical issue. This is because there are a variety of bacteria present in hospital settings and patients typically have a reduced immune capacity, making their likelihood of getting an infection much higher (4).
There are a number of preventative measures you can take if you are at risk of developing sepsis. If you’re staying in the hospital, make sure all of your visitors thoroughly wash their hands before coming to see you (7). If you’ve injured yourself, clean the skin wound, ensure there is no dirt or debris left behind, and cover up the wound (7). The flu shot is also a great preventative method that can be used to stop flu from developing into sepsis (7).
Luke’s story proves that you don’t have to be in a hospital or have the risk factors associated with sepsis to contract the illness. It can happen to anyone at any time. That’s why it’s so important to keep the symptoms of sepsis in mind – it can save your life! Read this next to learn more about the signs and severity of sepsis.
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- “IT FELT LIKE FLU” Dad nearly dies from biting his fingernails – after it triggered killer sepsis infection.” The Sun. Andrea Downey. May 1, 2018.
- “Sepsis.” CDC.
- “Sepsis: What you need to know.” Medical News Today. Markus MacGill. September 3, 2020.
- “Hospital-Acquired Infections and Sepsis May Be Medical Malpractice.” Ross Feller Casey. Gerald Parker, III, M.D., J.D., Esq. February 14, 2017.
- “Serious health risks from biting your nails will horrify you.” AOL. Evy Pitt Stoler. February 25, 2016.
- “Trauma.” Journals. Robert Thornhill, et al. January 22, 2010.
- “How to Avoid Sepsis, a Deadly Medical Emergency.” Consumer Reports. Kevin McCarthy. August 23, 2016.