Your Nose: The Ultimate Air Cleaner
Your nose does more than just decorate your face. Inside, you’re carrying around a personal air treatment system, cleverly designed to protect the delicate tissues of your lungs that transfer oxygen out of the air you breathe and into your body.
Whether classically bold or cutely upturned, your nose
Filters the air, catching and trapping tiny particles before they can get into your lungs
Humidifies the air, adding moisture to keep your airways from drying out
Warms the air to body temperature before it reaches your lungs
This marvelous system is portable, durable – usually fairly quiet – and never needs batteries! But it does require some maintenance to keep it working at peak efficiency.
What happens when you breathe?
When you breathe through your nose, the air goes past your nostrils into an open area inside your head called the nasal cavity before heading down your esophagus and into your lungs through your windpipe.
The whole system of airways is lined with a thin layer of sticky mucus that traps dust particles, bacteria and other pollutants. Tiny hairs called cilia sweep mucus from your nasal cavity into the back of your throat where it can be swallowed and neutralized in your stomach. More mucus is constantly being produced (2-4 cups per day) and the cycle goes on.
An intricate network of blood vessels takes care of the heating and humidifying work. Folds of tissue (called turbinates) inside your nasal cavity provide a huge surface area of blood vessels that warm the air to body temperature and add moisture within seconds.
How does mucus help?
Mucus must have just the right balance of stickiness and fluidity for the filtering process to work efficiently. Allergic reactions and infections can disrupt this balance, and dry air, irritating chemicals and secondhand smoke tip the scales even more.
Allergens and infections alert your immune system to send extra blood cells to the lining of your nasal passages, making them swollen and inflamed (congested). At the same time, your nose produces extra mucus. This can overwhelm the cilia’s ability to clean things out – and leave you with a stuffed-up or runny nose.
Strong scents and chemicals (such as those in tobacco smoke) can affect how well the cilia in your nasal cavity work, also causing mucus to build up.
A dry nose also has trouble moving mucus effectively. When the air you breathe is very dry (especially cold winter air), it may pull more moisture than usual from your nose. The resulting dried out nasal passages and thickened mucus will be less able to sweep out germs, leaving you more susceptible to disease.
Breathing through your mouth instead of your nose – because your nose is congested, perhaps, or during vigorous exercise – bypasses much of your body’s natural air filtering and treatment. This can allow germs, allergens and other pollutants to get inside your lungs, where they can damage delicate tissues.
It also allows unconditioned air to affect sensitive small airways. For example, drawing cold air into your lungs without letting your nose warm it up first has a two-fold effect:
The cold air makes your airways tighten up and constrict, so breathing becomes more difficult
The dryness thickens mucus and clogs the cilia, so your lungs are less able to process oxygen and move it into your bloodstream
A cold in the nose
A “cold” is a viral infection in the lining of your nasal passages. You may pick up the germs by touching contaminated surfaces with your hands then touching your nose or eyes or by being exposed to germs from someone’s cough or sneeze. When your nose is working efficiently, cold viruses are swept out of the nasal passages in your mucus. When it’s not, they can sit in your nose and make their way into your nasal tissue, causing infection.
Because the connection between the nose and lungs is so important, keeping your nose healthy can help reduce problems in the lungs such as asthma symptoms. Sensitive airways already compromised by underlying inflammation are primed and ready to react when exposed to allergens, irritants, excess mucus or cold air.
How to maintain a healthy nose
Although you can’t always control the temperature or contents of the air you breathe, you can take steps to keep your nose as healthy as possible by following these tips:
Drink plenty of water to keep mucus thin and fluid.
Help warm the air you breathe in cold weather by wearing a scarf over your nose and mouth.
Keep nasal passages moist with saltwater nasal washes or sprays, especially if you are exposed to dry air, allergens or infection.
When using nasal sprays, be careful to direct the spray toward the outer surface of your nasal passage, away from the center of your nose, to avoid damaging the septum (the tissue that separates the two sides of your nasal passage).
Limit your use of decongestant sprays, which can damage the cilia that clear the nose and sinuses.
Ask your health care professional whether any other medications you take could contribute to nasal problems. For instance, diuretic blood pressure medications and some anti-anxiety medications have a drying effect on nose and throat; birth control pills, beta-blocker blood pressure medicines and erectile dysfunction medication can increase nasal congestion; eye drops can aggravate nasal symptoms when they drain into the nose with tears.