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All stuffed up

Stuffed up? Reach for a tissue, and consider these thoughts on mucus.
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It's the most stuffed-up time of year--keep tissue handy. Photo supplied.

 

There’s a lot of “stuff” this time of year – the stuffing in the turkey, for example, or all the meaningless commercial stuff we buy for the holidays that ends up in landfills. The holidays are a good time to look around and assess what is good stuff and what is bad. It might disappoint some readers to learn that this week the “stuff” we are choosing to look at is the mucus in your nose.

There can be quite a volume of this sticky, or runny, or plugged up stuff at this time of year. A very stuffed up nose can be symptom of trouble. Our thoughts are with the many anxious families dealing with young children battling respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

“The hallmark of RSV is that it causes a lot of mucus production that causes you to blow your nose more frequently,” says Dr. Magna Dias, a pediatric physician with Yale Medicine. Fortunately, that’s the worst of it for most children, while for those with weak immune systems, hospitalization is necessary, as we are witnessing now.

But don’t be alarmed by some of that mucus in your nose. It’s normal. It might not be apparent when you are coughing it up or sneezing it out, but mucus is good for you.

In fact, mucus is a functional component of the mouth, sinuses, throat, lungs, and gastrointestinal system. It’s mostly water, but also contains antibodies that attack viruses, bacteria, and allergens. Without enough mucus, infections have the advantage.

The sticky quality of mucus helps it trap dust before it gets in the lungs. The slimy element helps slide food down the esophagus and protects the stomach lining from acid. There’s a sexy element of mucus found in cervical secretions too.

The average person produces an astounding 4 cups of mucus a day! Most of it gets swallowed without notice.

The colour is an indication of whether mucus is “normal” or the harbinger of an unwanted visitor. Clear mucus means good health. Yellow or green suggests a viral infection. Brown or red means the presence of blood, caused by inflammation or the trauma of a finger, perhaps.

Not you picking your nose? It’s rare person who doesn’t. Studies show that nearly all people pick their nose about four times a day. But it is not a clean habit. Mixed with dead skin cells and dirt under the fingernails, it's possible to find nasty stuff like the bacteria that cause pneumonia and urinary tract infections, and even salmonella and E. coli.

To the extent possible, leave that healthy mucus alone.

A better pastime is to admire the innovative uses of mucus in the animal kingdom. Snail slime helps with protection and propulsion. Some snails use mucus to suspend themselves in midair for a remarkable mating performance. Not surprisingly, there is a robust market for snail mucus in Chinese and Korean medicine and cosmetics.

There has also been research suggesting dolphins take advantage of the mucus in their nasal passages beneath their blowholes to produce their highest frequency clicks.

Dolphins, snails and fish live in wet places. We humans, however, need to survive through the dry winter air. The lack of humidity can make our noses drier than in other seasons. Drinking more water will help.

And when the nose tickles, reach for a tissue.

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