A Day in the Life of Your Nose

One salacious schnoz explains how she’s much more than a messy mucus maker.

Serge Bloch for Reader's Digest
It’s 7 a.m., and from the plush bed of a beautiful resort, I just rousted the Body and her husband with a loud snort. It’s a rude awakening for such an idyllic setting, but it’s as dry as dust in here, and the hotel room is freezing. The combination sucks the moisture out of the air and clogs me up. If only she’d get me a humidifier or some saline spray, I’d behave better.

The Best Part of My Day

Today, we’re on vacation, a romantic getaway for the Body and her hubby. Or that’s the goal, which is why she wants to quit the mouth-breathing. The Body tosses back the covers and heads for the most blissful spot on earth: the shower. Ah, sweet relief! There’s nothing better than breathing this warm, moist air. My passages are open, and I can smell again.

Just in the nick of time too. The Body’s next stop is the hotel dining room. It’s been 12 hours since she last ate, and as soon as the aromatic molecules of Belgian waffles and coffee hit my smell-detecting neurons, I tell the brain to send the Body a message: “Honey, you’re starving.”

If she hadn’t been able to unclog me, this meal would have been as enjoyable as an amusement park during a power outage. She can thank her taste buds all she wants for conveying the delicious flavors of maple syrup and bacon, but I know a dirty little secret: Taste buds can decipher only the most basic notes, like salty, sweet, and sour.

Every other flavor that makes the Body salivate (or recoil in disgust) is conducted by yours truly. When the food’s aroma wafts up the back of the throat after the Body swallows, it tickles my smell receptors, and voilà: She can tell the difference between strawberry and cherry.

My Most Important Job

The Body probably thinks I’m only here so she can smell the roses. But I’m really a Secret Service agent for the lungs. You see, the Body inhales more than 2,500 gallons of air a day, and someone’s got to make sure it’s up to snuff. First, I warm and humidify the inhaled air so it doesn’t shock or dry out the lungs. Second, I use my mucus to nab all kinds of villains, from pollution to viruses. I produce a quart of the stuff a day and send it all down your gullet to your stomach, where acid kills nearly everything trapped in it.

My nasal passages, by the way, aren’t just cavernous holes that suck in air like straws; they are lined with thick bumps of bone called turbinates. The bumps regulate and slow down airflow, which gives me more time to condition the inhaled air to body temperature and to humidify it with watery secretions (not mucus—a different fluid).

No other creature has a nose quite like me. My unique external shape helps keep the Body’s lungs cool and hydrated in the midday sun. Thanks to moi, the Body’s ancestors could hunt and gather in the heat, outlasting all those antelope. Now I just help her take long walks in the summer sun without hurting her lungs.

And you humans want to go nipping and tucking this evolutionary wonder? Don’t cut off your nose to spite your lungs, buddy.

Serge Bloch for Reader's Digest

I Brake for Allergens

Next up on the agenda: a nature hike. Man, this beats stale office air any day. The Body agrees. “Do you smell that?” she asks her hubby. “Huh,” he responds ambiguously. Clearly, he’s not as jazzed by the orange blossoms. It’s not that he’s bored. Women have a keener sense of smell, and odor affects them in more emotional ways. Let’s just say men prefer visual stimuli.

Look out, incoming! Caught that debris right in my microscopic hairs, called cilia. Oh, no, it’s ragweed! In a few seconds, the Body is going to be cursing me for causing trouble in paradise. She’s got allergies, which means I’ve got trigger-happy patrollers in my mucus. When they sense a troublemaker (hey, you try telling them pollen is harmless), they instruct immune cells to pounce. Their weapon of choice? Histamine, a chemical that can have an effect similar to that of tear gas. Argh! I’m flooding with watery secretions in an attempt to clear the premises. Sure, the Body can’t breathe very well, but if the invader was a more serious threat, like a virus, I’d be doing her a favor. As the Body asks for tissues, I want to shout, Don’t pinch me shut! I hate when she tries to repress a sneeze. Doesn’t she realize it’s an eject button for those irritating buggers? Way to undo all of my hard work. I get it: Allergies are not very sexy. But it’s the immune system’s fault, not mine. And if we’re going to be pointing fingers, she should blame herself for forgetting allergy meds.

My Amazing Memory

Finally, it’s dinnertime. While the Body peruses the menu, I detect a familiar scent from someone walking by. It’s been decades, but I’d know that smell anywhere: the cologne her high school crush wore. The Body smiles wistfully at the memory it triggers. Smell is an emotional time machine: I may be able to tell you the instant I first sniffed a smell—and the Body may even recall the emotions that went with it.

My stellar odor-detecting abilities also stimulate another type of appetite—wink, wink. Try as humans might to cover up their odors, a woman chooses a mate in part by his aroma. A man’s armpits emit a lot of information—namely, whether his genes are a good match for hers. And the Body’s hubby smells darn attractive tonight. Back to the hotel room for some romance.

With my matchmaking done for the evening, the Body is ready to snooze. But the moment her head hits the pillow, I feel pressure start to build. The Body thinks it’s an evil trick I play on her—getting clogged just as she is trying to doze off—but there’s nothing I can do about gravity. If she slept standing up, like a horse, the blood vessels in her nose wouldn’t swell so much and congest me. She’s also allergic to dust, and these pillows are rife with it.

Man, she’ll keep all of us awake tonight with that snoring. Mouth breathers are the worst bedmates! But the Body’s hubby seems to take it in stride. I can’t say the same for myself, standing by idly while the mouth does my job. But in the spirit of vacation, I’ll try to be forgiving—as long as she gets me allergy medicine tomorrow … and orders extra bacon.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest