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What causes our noses to become runny when we’re unwell? A school nurse elucidates the functions of mucus.

Experiencing a runny or congested nose during illness can be quite uncomfortable. The constant need to blow your nose and the difficulty in breathing through it may prompt the question: Why does this happen?

As a nurse practitioner actively involved with children and engaged in nursing education, I can offer a straightforward explanation. Mucus, often referred to as “snot,” plays a crucial role in maintaining your health.

Throughout your body, including the nose, throat, and lungs, mucus acts as a protective barrier against harmful bacteria, viruses, and other particles. It is continually produced by your body to combat germs and facilitate their removal.

During illness, your immune system intensifies its efforts, leading to increased production of mucus as a mechanism to flush out germs. Despite its seemingly unpleasant nature, mucus possesses remarkable properties.

Comprising water, proteins, and salts, mucus has a sticky consistency that effectively traps undesirable microorganisms and particles like dust, pet dander, and mildew, preventing them from penetrating deeper into your system.

Certain components in mucus prevent bacteria from forming harmful alliances, while others have the capability to eliminate invaders attempting to induce illness. Although the precise mechanisms are not fully understood, the proteins and genes in mucus collaborate to adjust its thickness and viscosity as needed.

Once germs or potentially harmful particles are ensnared and neutralized, your body employs the strategy of producing an excess of mucus, prompting actions such as blowing, sneezing, or coughing to expel them.

Notably, when you are unwell, your nose may exhibit redness. This occurs because, in addition to generating mucus, your immune system dispatches additional white blood cells to the infection site. As these cells rush to combat the infection, they expand blood vessels, resulting in a red appearance. The repeated wiping and blowing during illness can contribute to the redness as well.

Snot can exhibit an array of unpleasant colors. During an infection, white blood cells release chemicals that may impart a yellow hue to your nasal mucus. If a higher concentration of these cells is required, the mucus may even take on a greenish tint. Typically, after a few days, colored mucus tends to revert to its clear state, and nasal congestion gradually diminishes.

Mucus is not limited to the nasal and lung regions; it serves a protective function in various parts of the body. The eyes, for instance, possess a thin layer of mucus that safeguards them from airborne particles. In cases of illness or eye infections, eye mucus acts similarly to its nasal counterpart by capturing and neutralizing germs. There are instances when eye mucus may thicken and adopt a yellowish appearance, indicating a need to consult with a healthcare professional. It is essential to refrain from touching your eyes with your fingers, as this can introduce additional germs.

Protective mucus is also present in the stomach and intestines. During episodes of an upset stomach leading to diarrhea, the intestinal mucus works diligently to flush out harmful bacteria. This heightened mucus activity contributes to the alteration of normal stool consistency from solid to a more gel-like substance. While various factors such as stress, constipation, or food allergies can cause stomachaches, the presence of diarrhea indicates the active role of mucus in combating infections.

Mucus is not exclusive to humans; it is a feature shared by other animals as well. Dogs and cats, for example, also have their own mucus-related mechanisms.

Sea creatures such as parrotfish and wrasses employ mucus cocoons during the night to shield themselves from predators. Chameleons utilize the adhesive mucus on their tongue tips to capture prey, while earthworms secrete mucus to facilitate movement through the soil, contributing to soil health.

In humans, mucus serves as a defense mechanism by neutralizing and expelling microbial threats. Therefore, the next time you grab a tissue to clear your nasal passages, recognize that your body’s inherent defenses are actively working to maintain or restore your health. Consider the production of mucus as one of your body’s remarkable abilities.

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