Is It Snot Or Not? Woman surrounded by tissues, blowing her nose.

From the smallest of babies to the oldest of adults, at some point, everyone has had a “runny nose.” The mucus that comes out of our nose is most commonly referred to as snot. But sometimes your nose produces more than mucus. It’s important to know the difference between mucus, pus, polyps, cerebrospinal fluid, and a foreign object so you will know when to seek the care of a physician. So read on to learn how you too can identify whether it is snot or not.

When It’s Snot

When a virus, allergen, or other irritant stimulates the goblet cells of the mucous membranes that line your nasal passages, excessive mucus (snot) is created. The fancy name for this is nasal mucosal inflammation, and the result is a runny nose. Nasal mucus is normally helpful in trapping small particulates and pathogens out of the air that we breathe and preventing them from entering the lungs. The mucus with the trapped debris is then transported by cilia (small hair-like structures) that push the mucus to the back of the throat, where it is swallowed and digested into basic nutrients, which are then put back to use by the body. Nasal mucus also helps to maintain tissue moisture and to humidify incoming air before it reaches the lungs. 

Mucus is a gel-like substance composed mostly of water. However, it also contains other substances, including mucins, inorganic salts, proteins (including pathogen killing enzymes), lipids, and mucopolysaccharides. The proportion of these constituents can vary based on humidity or the presence of a sinus infection or sinus inflammation related to allergies or environmental irritants. These variables can make mucus have differences in appearance. The ear, nose and throat specialists at CornerStone Ear, Nose & Throat are experts at identifying various types of mucus, as well as substances that are not actually mucus. This process is critical in determining the course for medical treatment if needed. 

When It’s Not Snot

Blood In The Nose (Epistaxis) – Unless trauma is involved, blood in the nose does not usually require medical attention, but can be a recurrent problem due to the high number of blood vessels in the nose. Recurrent or persistent nosebleeds are usually the result of dry nasal mucosa, nose picking, inflammation, allergies, high blood pressure, and/or anticoagulating medications such as Coumadin, Xarelto, Plavix, and aspirin. Management of these variables can often result in decreased nosebleeds. If you have excessive or persistent nosebleeds, it is important to consult an ear, nose and throat specialist. While most nosebleeds stop on their own, some patients require temporary nasal packing or vessel cauterization to address the problem.

Pus (Purulence) – Pus is sticky, thick, milky, yellow or green, and often smelly. This substance drains from your nose along with mucus and is often evidence of an infection. Pus contains a high concentration of white blood cells that the body has sent to fight infection, as well as dead cells and pathogen metabolites. Viral and fungal infections can both cause purulence, but they do not always respond to the same medical treatments. If you have pus draining from your nose, especially for more than a week, you should see a doctor.

Polyps – Nasal polyps are benign growths in the nose that are associated with chronic inflammation related to allergies, chronic sinusitis, or environmental irritant exposure (such as smoke or pollution). Polyps can contribute to nasal obstruction and reduce your ability to smell. If you look into a person’s nose, polyps may look like snot as they arise from the glistening mucous membrane of your nose. Polyps often require surgical removal for relief. 

Cerebrospinal Fluid – Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) is the clear and colorless fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord and is typically confined to these regions by a protective covering called the dura. A leak in the dura can lead to CSF draining from the nose. These leaks are rare and usually are associated with a traumatic or surgical event. 

Spontaneous CSF drainage from the nose can occur, but it is very rare. Symptoms include profuse clear watery discharge from the nose, especially when lifting or bearing down, and a salty taste in the throat. If a CSF leak is suspected, the fluid is usually collected and analyzed to make a definite diagnosis. CSF leaks often close with time and proper care, though surgery may be needed to resolve them.

Foreign Body In The Nose – There are many foreign bodies that look like snot, especially if they have been in the nose for a while. The nasal mucosa may be swollen around the foreign body, making it difficult to identify. Common foreign bodies that can look like snot, especially after several days in the nose, include cotton, foam, paper balls, plastic toy pieces, and toilet tissue.

It is important to be aware of any changes in your nose and to understand what is snot and what is not. This knowledge can help you determine whether you have a simple runny nose, a recurring sinus infection, or something more serious that needs immediate medical care. Any time you have ongoing nasal or sinus problems, contact an ear, nose and throat specialist for an evaluation.

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