You might make a disgusted face when you notice that the person waiting in their car at the red light next to you is picking their nose, but admit it, you do it too. And while it might be the natural option when there isn’t a box of tissues around, it can be bad for you. The main reasons people feel the need to pick their nose is to clear it of dried mucus, relieve an itch, or just because it feels good. Boogers form when mucus and cilia, the tiny hairs that line the nostrils, trap the dust, dirt, germs, and pollen that get into your nasal cavity. When boogers build up in your nose, it can be uncomfortable, and sometimes just blowing into a tissue doesn’t do the trick.
Picking your nose can cause abrasions and bleeding within your nostrils, explains Irvin Sulapas, MD, an assistant professor of sports medicine in the Department of Family & Community Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. That’s not terribly damaging, but when the germs from your hands get into your nasal passage, it can cause a respiratory infection. (Not picking their nose is one way doctors avoid cold and flu.)
“You have bacteria underneath your fingernails and when you pick your nose, some of that bacteria can get in there and increase your risk of infection,” Dr. Sulapas explains. This is a common way to get colds—you touch an infected surface then pick your nose and spread the infection to yourself. If you’re biting your nails, the risk of infection is even higher. That’s one of the everyday mistakes that could raise your risk of catching a cold. It’s also why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises against touching your eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands.
In some extreme worst-case-scenario or chronic nose-picking cases, people have picked their nose so much that they tore a hole in their nasal septum, the thin cartilage tissue that separates your nostrils, Dr. Sulapas says.
If dry winter air is causing mucus to harden in your nostrils, making you want to pick, consider using a humidifier that will moisten the air at home, or taking a steam shower to soften things up in there. (Here’s how to choose the best humidifier for your space.) Dr. Sulaplas also recommends using a saline spray or saline rinse to help wash away the mucous in a safe, gentle way.
Children, who are most famous for having a finger up their nose, sometimes don’t realize how much irritation they’re causing, and sometimes it can lead to nose bleeds. There are five arteries that lead to the front of the nose, making the blood supply very strong and the nose susceptible to nose bleeds.
So, next time you go to pick your nose, think about how many germs are on your hands and in your boogers, and maybe reach for a tissue instead. Even if you’re alone, and not waiting for the light to turn green, please, use a tissue. And keep these simple habits in mind to stop from getting sick.