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 probably do this at least once in a while 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.
“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.
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. Dr. Sulaplas also recommends using a saline spray or saline rinse to help wash away the mucous in a safe, gentle way.
So, next time you go to pick your nose, think about how many germs are on your hands (and our nose), 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.