What are boogers? – Taryn, 9, Seattle, WA
What exactly is a booger and is it harmful to eat? – Concerned grandpa
Dear curious readers,
When I went to visit my friend Susan Perkins, an instructor of nursing at Washington State University, she shined a tiny light in my nose. Sure enough, she found some crusty little boogies.
Perkins said boogers actually start out in the nose as sticky, slimy mucus, which is mostly water. It also has a little protein to keep it sticky, some salt, and other chemicals.
“Many of our organs make mucus,” Perkins said. “It’s just that the kind in our nose turns into boogers.” In your nose, tiny hair cells help push the mucus down toward your nostrils. Mucus dries out in the air and pretty soon you’ve got a booger. But not all mucus is destined to become a booger.
Some of the mucus from your nose goes in the other direction and gets flushed into your stomach. While that might sound gross at first, mucus plays an important part in protecting the human body. Mucus can grab onto invaders such as dust particles or bad germs. If any harmful germs do make it to your stomach, the stomach acids will probably destroy them. Mucus from the nose lines your airways in a nice gooey layer to help protect your lungs. “The reason we have mucus is because it helps capture and flush out any foreign particles that we breathe in,” Perkins said.
And between the mucus that forms in the nose, stomach, lungs, and guts, the body makes quite a bit of it, too.
Since the stuff that’s in our boogers is what you end up swallowing anyway, it’s left some scientists wondering if eating mucus might help boost the body’s defense system. Though, I imagine it might be tough for scientists to find humans who want to volunteer in the research to help find out. It might sound absurd to eat mucus, but some organisms actually make a meal out of it. Tiny crustaceans called sea lice eat mucus that forms on salmon.
While sea lice like to eat mucus, eating boogers or mucus tends to gross people out. Your friends probably don’t want to see you doing it and you probably don’t want your friends to see you picking either. And in the end, it’s the picking part that could cause trouble, Perkins said. Picking can irritate your nose. It might even cause a little bleeding, which could open you up to more germs or infection. Germs may also spread from your nose to your hands and to other people.
As I left Perkins’ office, one of my boogers was coming out of the cave. She kindly offered me a tissue. It’s usually best to use a tissue when you are handling the boogies. The next time you blow your nose, that little crusty glob may just remind you that your body is working hard to keep you healthy.
Sincerely, Dr. Universe
Got a science question? E-mail Dr. Wendy Sue Universe at Dr.Universe@wsu.edu.
Ask Dr. Universe is a science-education project from Washington State University.