Who knew there was a right way and a wrong way to blow your nose? It's not just a matter of etiquette. Studies show that blowing your nose the right way may help clear out irritating mucus, while blowing your nose the wrong way may carry more risks than benefits.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most adults average two to three colds annually. Children typically suffer from colds even more frequently than adults. Given these statistics, it is likely that you or someone in your family will experience a runny or stuffy nose this year. Learning why some nose-blowing practices work and others don't could make a big difference for you and your loved ones.
Understanding nose anatomy
When you experience a stuffy nose, what is happening is that your nasal passages are becoming clogged due to swollen and inflamed blood vessels and mucous membranes. On top of that, whatever is irritating your nasal tissue can also stimulate excess mucus production. The combination of narrowed nasal passages and too much mucus results in that uncomfortable “I-can't-breathe" feeling called nasal congestion.
The problem with indiscriminate nose-blowing is that those clogged up nasal passages are located near many other delicate and important structures in your head—like your eyes and eye sockets, and your inner ears (as anyone who has struggled with sinus congestion and ear pain will attest).
Furthermore, typical nose-blowing packs more of a punch than you might think. One study that measured the force behind nose-blowing noted “our champion nose-blower reached an amazing maximum pressure of 2420 daPa." That is the equivalent of 3.5 pound-force per square inch (PSI).
What can go wrong?
That kind of powerful blow can feel like a punch to the face from the inside. In fact, in rare instances, people have blown their noses with such force they have caused facial fractures. In one case, a 40-year-old woman blew her nose so vigorously she fractured the floor of her eye socket. Although eye socket fractures caused by nose-blowing are a rare occurrence, it has happened more than once.
An equally unwelcome side effect of enthusiastic nose-blowing might be the introduction of viruses and bacteria into the sinuses. One study suggested that the pressure generated during nose-blowing was higher than the pressure generated during sneezing or coughing. The same study further suggested that this high pressure could propel viruses and bacteria deeper into the sinuses, with the potential to cause sinus infections, complicating the initial effects of the common cold. In a similar fashion, extra vigorous nose-blowing may have potential to propel bacteria into the inner ear, leading to an ear infection.
The right way to clear your nose
But there is no reason to let these stories scare you. There are several ways to address your nasal congestion that are less likely to end with your story being written up in a medical journal. Here are a few kinder, gentler ways to treat a stuffy nose:
- Give your sinuses a bath. Nasal cleansing involves gently rinsing your irritated nasal passages out with water. Some people find success using a neti pot. A neti pot is a small pitcher with a long spout that can be filled with salt water and used to rinse out irritated nasal passages. A saline nasal spray can also be used to treat a runny or stuffy nose. Both neti pots and saline nasal sprays are available at your local CVS pharmacy.
- Try decongestants. Decongestants work by reducing swelling in the nasal passageways. But follow the medication directions and be careful not to overuse them. Some studies have suggested that overuse of decongestant nasal spray overuse can backfire and cause rebound congestion (rhinitis medicamentosa). Other studies, however, have been less conclusive.
- If you must blow, blow gently. It can also be helpful to blow one nostril at a time. The authors of the aforementioned study on the pressures generated during nose-blowing found that blowing with both nostrils generated higher pressures than blowing one nostril at a time.