It’s that time of year. The time when we send kids back to school and colds and the flu spread like wildfire. We try to get our flu shots before we get sick (I got mine this week!), buy up the tissues, and Claritin, and cough drops, and whatever other methods we use to get through the approximate 2 week period it takes for a cold to run its course.
Speaking of tissues…. the tissues…. So I am probably strange, but I look at my snot when I blow my nose. I think this started as a curious child, but as I have gotten older it serves a very practical purpose. I have learned that my snot can tell me a fair bit about what is going on in my body, and since I have seasonal allergies- this can be important for my doctor also.
In honor of Mucus, we shall have green sub headings today instead of the typical “some shade of purple.”
Mucus serves a purpose, and not just in our nose. There is mucus producing tissue in our mouth, nose, stomach, lungs, throat and GI tract. It basically keeps everything moist, and it can recognize and trap harmful things so that they don’t hurt us. “It is the oil in the engine. Without mucus, the engine seizes,” according to Michael M. Johns III, MD, director of the Emory Voice Center and assistant professor of otolaryngology — head and neck surgery at Emory University. (3)
What, you might ask, is mucus even made of anyway? Good question. It’s mostly water, actually. But it has other cool things in it too, like antibodies so that the body can recognize bacteria and viruses that don’t belong. It also has enzymes that will kill things that get trapped in the mucus. And protein to make the mucus that yucky texture, which isn’t only gross to humans, but to a variety of cells that we don’t want in our body.
When you have a cold or sinus infection, you suddenly become aware of just how much mucus your body produces. This is because when you have a cold or sinus infection the tissues in your nose and throat become swollen, or inflamed, and the path that mucus would usually take down your throat becomes obstructed and tries to drain out your nose. And hello, you are wishing you owned stock in Kleenex or Puffs. So, not only is all the mucus that you normally produce getting stuck, but your body starts making MORE to try to fight the illness. UGH.
“Hello, Mr. Stock Trader? I need to buy shares in Proctor and Gamble, please!”
And, you would be right, your body DOES produce a lot of mucus— 1 to 1.5 liters a day— when you don’t have a cold or illness.
Mucus is usually kinda watery. When you are dealing with allergies or sometimes the very beginning of a cold, when those tissues in your nose and throat get swollen, you may see mucus become a bit thicker. If you continue to get sicker, your mucus may get even thicker do to the white blood cells that begin to accumulate. (more about that in the color section.)
Sometimes diet can cause changes in our mucus too. For example, when I was a runner, we used to have a saying “Milk Makes Mucus,” a reminder not to drink milk before a race- you know, when you want to be able to breathe really well. And for some people, the proteins in milk can cause mucus production, though this is not true for everyone.
Spicy food can too.
This is one of my favorites, and this is why I am the gross person who checks out her snot. Technically, it’s not a diagnostic tool, but color kinda is. It’s one of the first things my doctor asks me about if I show up stuffed up (like I did yesterday), or mention having snotty issues (and I don’t mean uncool coworkers). So, what do the different snot colors mean anyway? I found this cool interactive thing here. But if you just want to keep reading I outline it here too:
Clear: This is the normal color of mucus. So, not too much is going with it yet. Though, it is possible for clear mucus to have a bacterial infection.
White: When mucus starts to turn white, that is usually an indication that you have some swollen throat or nose tissues and so the mucus isn’t draining as fast as it needs, and it’s starting to dry out a little bit, making it a little thicker and a little more milky. This can be an early indication of an infection or cold.
Yellow: Yep, you have a cold or an infections, by golly. That yellow color is created by the white blood cells coming to the area to fight the illness, and then the enzymes they created being sent out with your snot. Fun, eh? Colds generally last 10-14 days, so get that stock trader’s number out, and load up on the Puffs.
Green: Now you are really having to fight that cold or infection. Your mucus is carrying dead white cells and lots of green enzymes out at this point. If you are 12 days into your battle, it’s time to call the doctor, you may need extra assistance.
Red or Pink: This is blood. Usually, this could be from damage near the front of the nose, often from blowing. If there is a lot, again, you should consult with your doctor.
Brown: Sometimes this is dried blood, but a lot of times it’s something that was inhaled, such as dirt or paprika. (who inhales paprika anyway???)
Black: Unless you are using or smoking illegal drugs, this is bad. It’s a sign of a fungal infection. Typically, this is most common in someone who is already immuno-compromised. Definitely, see a doctor about this one.
So, there you are Five things your nose should know about the snot in life.
‘snot that hard, really, is it?