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"The Magic of Mucus" by Hana R. Solomon, MD

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Secreted by special cells, mucus is the substance that you know as “snot,” “boogers,” or “goobers” - terms that our children delight in saying. Nasal discharge, nasal drainage, rhinitis, sputum and phlegm are also terms used to describe this stuff. But let’s clear up the difference between mucus and mucous. Mucus is the stuff we know as nasal discharge. Mucous membranes are the actual lining of the nose and the sinuses. The mucous membranes secrete mucus. Mucous membranes blanket the nose and other body parts. This membrane lining contains special goblet cells that produce mucus, a complex substance that keeps the nose and sinuses moist. We produce between one pint and one quart of mucus per day, thanks to goblet cells. That’s two to four cups or eight to sixteen ounces per day!


Certain proteins in the goblet cells determine the thickness, stickiness (viscosity), and stretchiness (elasticity) of the mucus. Mucus is usually very watery but it gets thicker and stickier when exposed to irritants such as allergens, infections and pollution. In addition, hydration, age, hormones and medications affect the consistency of mucus. Older people experience thicker and stickier mucus because of hormonal changes, as do pregnant women. During cold weather, the nose hairs do not work as well to sweep the mucus towards the back of the throat and this explains why we often develop a runny nose when exposed to very cold temperatures. Mucus also thickens in cold weather. When an individual comes in from the cold, the mucus thins and begins to run before the cilia begin to work again. Mucus traps irritants and protects our entire airway before being expelled. There are two layers in the mucous membrane lining of your nose. The outer layer is thick and rich with immune cells, antibodies and antibacterial proteins. This layer traps bacterial, viral, and particulate matter. The thinner, underlying layer enables the cilia to beat, their tips essentially grabbing the superficial layer and pushing it in the direction in which the cilia are beating, usually towards the back of the throat. Most normal mucus is swallowed and the trapped irritants are inactivated in the intestines (gastrointestinal tract) before leaving the body.

Certain proteins in the goblet cells determine the thickness, stickiness (viscosity), and stretchiness (elasticity) of the mucus. Mucus is usually very watery but it gets thicker and stickier when exposed to irritants such as allergens, infections and pollution. In addition, hydration, age, hormones and medications affect the consistency of mucus. Older people experience thicker and stickier mucus because of hormonal changes, as do pregnant women. During cold weather, the nose hairs do not work as well to sweep the mucus towards the back of the throat and this explains why we often develop a runny nose when exposed to very cold temperatures. Mucus also thickens in cold weather. When an individual comes in from the cold, the mucus thins and begins to run before the cilia begin to work again. Mucus traps irritants and protects our entire airway before being expelled. There are two layers in the mucous membrane lining of your nose. The outer layer is thick and rich with immune cells, antibodies and antibacterial proteins. This layer traps bacterial, viral, and particulate matter. The thinner, underlying layer enables the cilia to beat, their tips essentially grabbing the superficial layer and pushing it in the direction in which the cilia are beating, usually towards the back of the throat. Most normal mucus is swallowed and the trapped irritants are inactivated in the intestines (gastrointestinal tract) before leaving the body. A problem occurs when mucus blocks the sinus or ear drainage openings. If the sinus opening (osteomeatal complex) becomes plugged we are at risk for infection or at the very least a sinus pressure headache. Similarly, if the ear drainage tube (Eustachian tube) gets clogged, ear pain, decreased hearing, infection, and other maladies can occur. When the normal flow of mucus is inhibited for any reason (mucostasis), dangerous bacterial, viral, or allergen particles can remain on cell surfaces long enough to penetrate the body’s defense system. Excess draining down the throat is called post-nasal drip. This can cause a cough, a change in voice quality or a sore throat. Mucus is naturally acidic and can burn the throat if allowed to stagnate there. Hence the complaint, “I woke up with a sore throat” is often a result of mucus drainage during sleep. Enough mucus and swelling can also cause a decreased sense of smell and taste.


Retrieved from "Clearing The Air One Nose at a Time: Caring for Your Personal Filter" by Hana R. Solomon MD, 2013"
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