Come on, you know you do it.
Whether you’re in the trusted company of your partner or grabbing a quick bite when you think no one is looking, we’re all picking our noses. Other primates do it too.
The social stigma surrounding nose picking is widespread. But should we really do it – and what should we do with our boogers?
We’re scientists who’ve researched the environmental pollutants — in our homes, our workplaces, our gardens — so we have some insight into what really gets you stuck there when your finger is satisfactorily stuck into your sniffer.
Nose picking is a natural habit – children who have not yet learned social norms realize early on that the fit between their index finger and one nostril is quite good. But there’s a lot more than just snot up there.
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During the approximately 22,000 breathing cycles per day, the booger-forming mucus above forms a critical biological filter to trap dust and allergens before they enter our airways, where they can cause inflammation, asthma and other long-term lung problems.
Cells in your nasal cavity called goblet cells (named for their cup-shaped appearance) generate mucus to trap viruses, bacteria and dust that may contain harmful substances, such as lead, asbestos and pollen.
Nasal mucus and its antibodies and enzymes are the body’s first defense system against infection.
The nasal cavity also has its own microbiome. Sometimes these natural populations can be disturbed leading to various conditions such as rhinitis. But overall, our nasal microbes help ward off invaders and fight them off on a mucus battlefield.
The dust, microbes and allergens trapped in your mucus are eventually absorbed as that mucus trickles down your throat.
This is usually not a problem, but it can exacerbate environmental exposure to some contaminants.
Lead, a neurotoxin commonly found in house dust and garden soil, for example, enters children’s bodies most efficiently through absorption and digestion.
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So you could exacerbate certain exposures to environmental toxins if you sniff or eat them instead of blowing them out.
What does the science say about the risks of booger mining?
Golden staph (Staphylococcus aureussometimes abbreviated to S. aureus) is a germ that can cause a variety of mild to severe infections. Studies show that it is commonly found in the nose (this is called nasal sling).
One study found that nose picking is associated with: S. aureus Nasal carriage, which means that the role of nose picking in nasal carriage may be causal in certain cases. It can help to overcome the habit of nose picking S. aureus decolonization strategies.
Nose picking may also be associated with an increased risk of golden staph transmission to wounds, where it poses a more serious risk.
Sometimes antibiotics don’t work on golden staph. A paper noted that growing antibiotic resistance necessitates health care providers assessing patients’ nose picking and educating them on effective ways to avoid finger-to-nose practices.
Nose picking can also be a means of transmission of Streptococcus pneumoniaea common cause of pneumonia among other infections.
In other words, sticking a number up your nose is a great way to push germs further into your body or spread them around with your snotty finger.
There is also the risk of gouges and abrasions in the nostrils, which can allow pathogenic bacteria to enter your body. Compulsive nose picking to the point of self-harm is called rhinotillexomania.
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Some people eat them (the technical term is mucophagy, which means “mucus feeding”). Aside from the fact that eating booger is disgusting, it means taking in all those inhaled slime-bound germs, toxic metals, and environmental pollutants discussed earlier.
Others wipe them on the nearest object, a small gift for someone else to discover later. Gross, and a great way to spread germs.
Some more hygienic people use a tissue to pick them up and then toss it in a trash can or toilet.
That’s probably one of the least worst options, if you really have to pick your nose. Be sure to wash your hands extra well after blowing or digging your nose, as infectious viruses can remain on the hands and fingers until the mucus has completely dried.
No advice in the world will stop you from digging away
In secret, in the car or on napkins, we all do it. And honestly, it’s so satisfying.
But let’s honor the tireless work of our remarkable noses, mucous and sinus cavities – such amazing biological adaptations – and remember that they work hard to protect you.
Your snoz is working overtime to keep you healthy, so don’t make it harder by jamming your dingy fingers up there. Don’t be shit – blow discreetly, dispose of tissue carefully and wash hands afterwards.
Mark Patrick Taylor is chief environmental scientist at EPA Victoria and honorary professor of environmental science and human health at Macquarie University in Sydney. Gabriel Filippelli is the Chancellor’s Professor of Earth Sciences and Executive Director of the Indiana University Environmental Resilience Institute. Michael Gillings is a professor of molecular evolution at Macquarie University.
This article was originally published on theconversation.com.