This post is also available in Dutch.
What is snot?
It starts with a sore throat and then before you know it, you’re getting a cold (again). Within a few days you are sniffling all the time. What is happening exactly?
Your mouth, nose, throat, lungs, stomach and intestines are covered in a mucous membrane: a layer of cells that creates mucus, or slime. The mucus of the nose has a clear color and contains antibodies and enzymes that protect against viruses and bacteria. A cold starts with an infection by a ‘cold virus’. The first symptoms show within 2 to 3 days after infection – this delay between the infection and the beginning of symptoms is called the incubation time.
The mucosa, or mucous membrane, in your nose, your sinuses and throat get infected. The infected mucosa swells, which makes your nose stuffed or running. To attack the cold, your immune system sends white blood cells to the respiratory system. These cells contain a green-colored enzyme, which makes your snot become green as well. This color shows your immune system is doing its job, but does not necessarily mean you are infected; you can also have a sinus infection while having clear snot.
What should you do with it?
You can blow your nose, sniffle, or pick it out. Social acceptance aside, what is the best way to deal with snot? medical professionals are recommending sniffling. When you blow your nose, you irritate the mucus membrane which increases the chance of a sinus infection. If you pick the snot from your nose there is a chance you damage your nose.
Of course, besides protecting yourself, you want to prevent contamination. When you blow your nose, you risk spreading the virus, whereas by sniffling you minimalize contamination by taking it back in. By picking your nose, you can spreading not only the infected snot but also staphylococcus aureus bacteria, and increase the risk that you yourself could become infected with it. This bacteria is common on the skin and in the nose and spreads easily via door handles and, for instance, ATMs. Normally it does not make you ill, but when you have a skin or mucus membrane damage, for example, from picking your nose, an infection may emerge. A very strong type of this bacteria is MRSA, which often causes problems in hospitals.
Snot from the nose is meant to be moist, but can also dry out when you are in a dry environment. At least 90% of Dutch people pick snot out of their nose and 10% even eat it. Disgusting behavior, according to many, but is it bad? Or may it even be a good idea to eat your snot?
There are people who insist that eating snot is super healthy. They claim that snot is a natural thing to do and ‘probably’ boosts the immune system. A stronger immune system would of course be ideal in these scary times. These claims, including one by an Austrian physician, have, however, never been scientifically supported.
But the media, on the other hand, ran with this theory it and it started to lead a life of its own. A study was reported showing that mucus in general has a protective function and for instance can decrease cavities in the mouth. This study did not even investigate the effects of snot specifically, but the Internet was full of statements like “picking your nose can prevent dental cavities, ulcers and even HIV!”. These misleading articles are a good example of why you should take statements on the Internet with a grain of snot…Eh salt. Or do your own critical research, like this concerned father.
So what is true?
Even if you are healthy, you produce around 1 to 1.5 liters of snot each day. Most of it disappears into your throat and stomach without you noticing. So, you get enough of the antibodies by default. Picking from your nose and eating your snot does not have any added benefit, but you can damage your nose and spread a nasty bacteria by doing it. So, sniffle and just swallow your snot. If you cannot not pick or blow your nose, then use a paper tissue and throw it away immediately. This way, you take care of yourself and others.