Mucus. It's not a pretty sounding word, is it? It's the "official" word for what is also called snot, boogers, loogies...and probably some other things I'm not hip enough to know! But I do know that mucus is a valuable part of the human body, regardless of what we call it or how we hate it.
What Is Mucus? Mucus consists of a glycoprotein called mucin, white blood cells, epithelial cells, inorganic salts and water. It is produced and secreted by mucous membranes and glands. These membranes basically line and protect the inside of the body like the skin does the outside. Anywhere our body may come into contact with the world - mouth, nose, throat, gastrointestinal and respiratory tract for example - will have mucus membranes. We make lots of mucus each day. A quart or so under normal conditions by most accounts! Phlegm is like mucus, but is usually thicker and produced in the lower lungs rather than the upper respiratory system. It usually has dead white blood cells, bacteria and viruses in it as well.
What Does Mucus Do? Mucus has two primary functions. One is to act as a protective layer for the tissue underneath it, keeping that tissue from drying out. Moisture is vital to the life and function of all of our cells. The other is to help keep bad things from getting deeper into the body. Mucus is sticky, so things like pollen, bacteria, viruses and dust get trapped in it and are worked out of the body before they can reach more vulnerable areas. Besides being a physical trap, mucus also has antibodies that can recognize, attack and destroy foreign invaders. This function is part of our innate immune system and valuable indeed.
When Mucus Goes Wrong. Now, of course, mucus doesn't really go wrong. When we are exposed to various triggers - particular allergens, viruses, bacteria, foods, cigarette smoke or whatever else you are individually sensitive to - the body reacts to stay in balance. When that reaction includes changing mucus production or consistency, we tend to feel that it's going wrong. Typically in allergy-type reactions, the secretions get more watery and the nose and eyes tend to run. In cold and infection-type reactions, the secretions tend to get thicker. Often the mucus membranes themselves will get swollen too, adding to the sensation of being "stuffed up." Plus, in a cold, the cilia (little hairs) that help move the mucus out of the nasal passages slow down. Contrary to popular opinion, the color of mucus is not a definitive guide to whether or not there is an infection involved. There are several things that can contribute to the color of mucus.
Mending Mucus. Most commonly, mucus is problematic when it's too thick. This is often associated with dryness. Remember, one of its primary functions is to keep things moist. If we're too dry, we'll make more mucus in an effort to protect ourselves. So staying hydrated is important. Nasal washes, like a neti pot, and steam inhalations can help moisten mucus membranes and thin mucus. Keeping room air humidified will also help. Over the counter anti-histamines and decongestants may help in the short term, but since they dry out the nasal passages, they actually can contribute to making more mucus. Treating the cause of mucus problems ultimately is the best idea. Supporting the immune system in acute situations (and all the time!) will help whether there is an issue with an infection or allergy.
So next time you're having a run-in with mucus, remember it's only doing its job! Take a step back and be grateful for its working to protect you. Listen for what it's telling you is out of balance and find a way to work with your body to regain that balance. You may never look at a stuffy nose the same way again!
Resources: Taber's Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary, www.webmd.com, www.everydayhealth.com, SCNM class notes