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Nasal mucus. There, I said it! These represent two words that no one likes to talk about. Sadly, mucus has a bad reputation for being a gross substance, but it is extremely useful and has vital functions.
Being an Ear Nose and Throat (ENT) doctor, I must admit to being a bit biased toward nasal mucus! I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly that is associated with mucus in many areas of the body.
Nasal mucus serves many great functions in our bodies but it becomes a problem when too much is made. Problems also happen when normal amounts are made but are unable to drain correctly. A large number of ENT patients are seen because they need to unclog areas that have become swollen and trapped mucus.
Many medications reduce the amounts of nasal mucus that is made, but I prefer to limit medications when possible. Instead, I recommend nasal saline or salt water washes. I previously discussed the benefits of using saline and shared tips for successful nasal saline use.
Later in this post, I will discuss how the type of mucus that is being made might guide you with treatments for nasal problems. There is, of course, no one answer for problems, but it is helpful to have some guidelines.
For now, I plan to share some facts which I hope will make nasal mucus a more comfortable subject. Perhaps these educational tidbits will remove the mystery about mucus and allow it to be celebrated for the constant work it does!
10 Facts You Need to Know about Nasal Mucus
1. Mucus is made all day, every day!
What most people think of as nasal mucus is actually a balanced mixture of both mucus and watery secretions. Usually, these two substances work together smoothly, and you may not even notice them. This nasal liquid serves an extremely important role; consequently, our bodies produce over one quart each day.
2. Mucus is made by special tissues in our bodies
Mucus is a slippery liquid made by mucous membranes. These special membranes line the passageways in body areas that connect to the outside environment. Some of their locations include the eyes, nose, mouth, respiratory airways, digestive tract and reproductive tract.
3. Mucus provides a way to help keep our bodies clean
When we breathe through our noses, mucus traps particles to clean the air. Therefore, dirt, dust, pollen, mold, virus, bacteria and other foreign particles have a harder time getting into our lungs. Tiny hair-like structures called cilia line the airways and beat in a pattern that sweeps the mucus to the back of the throat and removes the foreign particles attached to the mucus.
Smoking can hurt the cilia; consequently, smokers (first and second-hand) often have more trouble with a buildup of mucus.
4. Mucus helps fight infections
Mucus contains antibodies that recognize viruses, bacteria, and fungi. After the organisms have been identified and trapped in the mucus, enzymes in the fluid kill them and protect the body from infections.
5. Mucus humidifies air passages
I believe we all know what humidifying means. Who wants dry air in their nose?
6. Mucus lubricates and protects surfaces
Our nasal mucus keeps the lining of our noses moist. If these passages dry out, the surfaces crack, which is not only painful but also allows infectious organisms to enter into the body.
When the nose tissues crack, many people begin to have nasty nosebleeds. I see children with nosebleeds very often because parents become concerned about bleeding. However, I always stress the need to find the reason the tissues are cracking and treat them. Nosebleeds improve when you treat the underlying problem.
Of course in the meantime, most treatments for nosebleeds include ways to add more moisture back into the nose. Vaseline is a commonly recommended treatment; however, the warning on the back of the jar is very clear. It tells you to use the product on EXTERNAL parts of the body, such as knee or elbow or anywhere not inside the body. By all means, make sure you have a jar of this gooey-goodness because it does wonders for your skin!
Mucus membranes are INTERNAL parts of the body and I do not recommend Vaseline for repeated use in these areas because it can lead to life-threatening complications. I suggest AYR gel since it can be used internally and externally. All parents should add this gel to their home care kits as they use Momma Medicine to care for kids at home!
7. Mucus production increases when stimulated to protect our bodies
In response to irritation, inflammation or infection, the nasal tissues increase mucus production to protect the body. The excess mucus often changes consistency and color. This is a common event.
8. Colored mucus may or may not indicate a medical problem
Healthy mucus generally appears clear and thin. When it becomes thick and cloudy, inflammation, infection or allergy may be present. Colored mucus sometimes indicates a significant health problem, but this isn’t always the case. It can turn yellow or green when the body’s infection-fighting cells collect in the liquid.
Although the color of the mucus does not tell us if a problem needs to be treated, any time you become concerned about the appearance of nasal mucus, I recommend that you call your physician.
9. Allergy and the common cold tends to increase water content in mucus.
Ever had your nose “running like a faucet”? I think yes! Our bodies tend to make mucus which has excess water compared to mucus when we have allergies or a common cold.
Even though colds tend to be self-limited, always monitor them closely because, at any time, a severe viral infection complication may develop.
Allergies can be seasonal or all year round. Be sure you understand the best nasal allergy treatments to reduce symptoms.
10. Viral and bacterial infections often increase the mucus content in mucus
When infections are present, our bodies produce additional mucus, however, now it is made with excess mucus compared to water. This thick mucus becomes more difficult to manage and frequently blocks sinus and ear drainage pathways. Nasal saline washes yield excellent results at flushing out this mucus.
Since most people are bothered by symptoms of thick, clogging mucus, in addition to nasal saline washes, drinking more water and staying well-hydrated stands as a great treatment.
Also, using a small facial steamer or humidifier, taking a hot steamy shower, or even breathing through a warm wet washcloth brings some relief from thick, crusty mucus. One of my personal go-to items for home remedies is Vicks VapoRub which does wonders for clogged sinuses! Sometimes, I place it in hot water or a facial steamer and place a towel over my head to collect the medicated steam. (Want to add this to your Momma Medicine tricks? I think, yes!)
BONUS FACT: Milk does not increase mucus production.
Unless you have a milk allergy, drinking or eating milk products does not impact a cold. Many people believe that drinking milk makes their mucus thicker and more irritating to the throat; however, scientific testing has proven that milk doesn’t cause the body to make more mucus.
Understanding How to Treat Nasal Congestion and Mucus
Nasal mucus provides many outstanding benefits to our bodies on a daily basis. However, when nasal symptoms occur, some type of treatment becomes necessary.
Many people remain confused about which over the counter therapies to use or which ones make their symptoms worse. My initial suggestions for the three most common nasal complaints I encounter include:
- Runny nose (with sneezing and/or itching). Take an antihistamine to dry excess water in mucus.
- Post-nasal drip (thick mucus). Wash the nose with nasal saline, take an expectorant (this thins mucus) drink lots of fluids, breathe through a warm washcloth, and use steam to make the mucus more liquid.
- Congestion (blocked nose). Generally, this means that the nasal tissues have swollen. I often still recommend nasal saline washes but to more rapidly improve breathing, oral decongestants or decongestant nasal spray, like Afrin (for up to three days ONLY unless your physician tells you otherwise) may be needed. Your physician may also recommend nasal steroid or antihistamine sprays to reduce the chronic inflammation. These are the symptoms that often lead people to need an ENT evaluation!
So, hopefully, I have convinced some of you that mucus is your friend. Do not fear it. Understand it and learn to regulate it.
As always, much love for supporting my work. I will be adding many more posts to highlight parenting and healthcare tips, so be sure to consider subscribing to my podcast or to my blog to avoid missing a post!