The average person breathes through their nose around 20,000 times a day, but most of us know very little about what’s actually going on in there. Here are all the things that call your nostrils home.
According to this very questionable source, the average person will grow about six and a half feet of nostril hair in their lifetime. True or not, we do know that the nostrils are liberally lined with hair, whose function is primarily to act as a filter and catch any potentially harmful spores and germs before they can make their way to your lungs.
These hairs continue much further into your nostril than you might think, although at this point, they technically cease to be nostril hairs and become cilia—tiny, fine hairs that move in a constant, wave-like motion and herd unwanted matter away from your lungs and towards the back of your throat, where it can be swallowed and safely dealt with by your stomach acids. These same micro-hairs also coat the insides of your lungs, constantly scraping out unwanted substances and forcing them up to the surface.
One thing we do all know about nose hairs is that they hurt like flaming hell itself when you pull them out. This, according to primary care physician Dr. Marc Leavey, is because the inside of your nostril is simply not designed to experience trauma in the same manner as the outside of your body. Coupled with the fact that it’s full of nerve endings, it makes for an eye-wateringly painful experience. Worse still, plucking your nose hairs can give you a lethal infection that runs right into your brain, so if you want to whack those nose weeds, invest in a trimmer instead.
In technical terms, mucus is a “viscous colloid containing antiseptic enzymes, immunoglobulins and glycoproteins,” but the simple version is that mucus is a substance your body produces as a protective layer, which coats important areas and keeps them from drying out. Much like your nose hairs, the mucus in your nostrils helps to trap unwanted particles and keep them from entering your lungs. It goes a step further than the hairs, though, containing antibodies and enzymes that actively seek out and destroy the nasties it snares in its gooey embrace. So as gross as it is, it’s really doing you a solid (or liquid, depending on the weather).
Talking of which, low temperatures do indeed cause you to have a runny nose. In cold weather, the cilia deep inside your nostrils become sluggish, and without these hairs to keep your mucus where it’s supposed to be, it begins to dribble downwards towards the exit and (hopefully) into your waiting tissue.
As a dark, moist cavity with a ready food source (in the form of dead skin cells and other delights), your nostrils are a dream home for all manner of bacteria. Most people’s noses, says the Online Textbook of Bacteriology, generally contain both Staphylococcus epidermidis (which can be dangerous in patients with low immune systems) and the mostly harmless Corynebacteria. Around 25 percent of people will have traces of anything from Haemophilus influenzae (which can cause ear or possibly blood infections in small children and babies) to Neisseria meningitidis (meningitis, obviously, but also a life-threatening sepsis called meningococcemia) and Staphylococcus aureus (which can migrate into the body and cause all manner of trouble, including heart valve infections). An unlucky five percent will even have colonies of Streptococcus pneumoniae, which is responsible for pneumonia, bronchitis, meningitis, and a whole host of other horrible problems.
There isn’t really much you can do to prevent these germs from setting up shop in your nostrils—apart, that is, from keeping your hands clean and, more importantly, out of your nostrils. Which brings us, finally, to…
Your Index Finger
More a frequent visitor than a permanent resident, most people’s index fingers are nevertheless a familiar sight around those parts. We’ve already covered why plucking your nostril hairs is a bad idea, as well as why rooting around in there can introduce unwanted bacteria. But Joseph Han, medical director of the division of rhinology, endoscopic sinus and skull base surgery at the Eastern Virginia Medical School, points out that you also run the risk of causing nosebleeds and, in extreme cases, septal ulcerations (don’t click that last link if you’re squeamish). So once again, keep your fingers out of there—if not for your own sake, then for everyone who’s watching.