There was an interesting article about nasal congestion published not long ago. It’s by Sarah Zhang, called “Everything I Thought I Knew About Nasal Congestion Is Wrong,” and published in The Atlantic. Zhang explains some things I wasn’t fully aware of, and which seemed useful as well as kind of interesting. In this post I’ll share some of the major points.
The bit of knowledge that stood out most to me is this: Although some of congestion is due to mucus (or snot), much is due to the swelling of the interior lining of the nose itself. The inside of the nose can, and is supposed to, swell and expand (more on this below), but allergies or sickness can add to how much it swells, to the point where you can’t get sufficient air through either nostril. So, inflamed and swollen nasal tissues are a major part of that feeling of not being able to get (enough) air through your nose. It isn’t just mucus/snot.
There’s a practical implication of knowing this: If you’ve cleared out some mucus by blowing your nose, but still feel congested, continuing the nose-blowing may not help. The remaining congestion is likely the overly swollen lining itself, and not more mucus, so aggressively trying to clear out more snot may not be helpful.
That was the biggest takeaway for me. But there is further interesting information as well. For one thing, it turns out that your nose really does alternate between nostrils, with one of the two being more open than the other. Zhang reports that we aren’t entirely sure why the nose naturally has this cycle, but it could be a way for each nostril to catch some rest. Because, after all, the nose has to keep working even while we sleep. (There are other conjectured reasons for this as well, see her article.)
Connected with this nostril-alternation cycle is the fact that if you lay on your side, it will (eventually) cause the “opposite” nostril to open. That is, if you lay on your right side, your left nostril will open (assuming of course it had been “closed”). If you lay on your left side, the right nostril will open.
This arm-to-nostril connection in turn can be “hacked,” which is to say you can intentionally manipulate it if you know about it. One way of course would be to lie on your side. But you can also apply pressure to an armpit. This can be done with a bottle of some sort, or with a crutch, or presumable with other objects. However, it does sound like it can be a little labor intensive, and using a crutch or just laying on your side may be the most practical methods.
Another simply fun fact is that, in terms of the nose’s functionality, it’s as if we really have two noses. Yes of course there’s only one nose in terms of that funny fleshy thing that juts out of the middle of everyone’s face. But Zhang invites us to consider the inside of the nose, as an air passage. Turns out that each nostril’s passage is unconnected to the other one, and each operates with some independence. (Think again of the alternating cycle of nostrils being relatively open or closed.)
Another fun fact mentioned has to do with the nose’s air-warming work. The nose has multiple functions, and this is one of them: warming the air that’s inhaled before it gets to the lungs. Zhang writes that the temperature changes by about 30 degrees Fahrenheit (or by about 16 degrees Celsius) if we’re breathing typical room temperature air. This, I think, is impressive. It also relates back to the reason why each side of the nose might need to take periodic breaks. I wonder how cold the exterior temperature needs to get before the nose can’t warm up the inhaled air all the way to body temperature?
Check out Sarah Zhang’s full article in The Atlantic, it’s a good read! (You may need either Apple News on your phone (it’s a free article in that case) or a subscription to The Atlantic.)
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