The cold isn't just in the weather this season; it's also in our bodies. And an overabundance of mucus is one of the major physical byproducts of sickness, but it's with us all the time.
"Mucus has a couple of roles," Dr. Jeffery Spiegel, Professor of Otolaryngology at the Boston University School of Medicine, told Discovery News. It "coats and moisturizes membranes in mouth and nose, keeping those layers from drying out. But it is also protects your body, catching contaminants that would like to get in through the relatively thin membranes" in those areas.
Your mucus acts like a bouncer at a club; it keeps undesirables out of your body.
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As Dr. Spiegel describes it, "Think of being in a dirty environment" — a room you're painting, a dusty place or somewhere with soot. Afterward you'll see "black specks in your mucus when you blow your nose," which would have been in your body were it not for your mucus.
The sticky consistency of mucus is enough to grab things as they go by, trapping them in its gooeyness, similar to flypaper.
Mucus is produced by goblet cells — named for their resemblance to a goblet –- in the mouth and nose. The cells create mucus from water, proteins and polysaccharides so it can coat your sinus and mouth membranes, providing a yucky protective barrier.
Then, when we get sick, our body is trying to clear itself of bacteria and viruses. The goblet cells get revved up to flush away containments, which produces even more mucus. As Dr. Spiegel said, "A clever mnemonic is 'dilution is the solution to pollution.'" The more mucus we have running out of our sinuses, and through our mouths — in the form of phlegm — the more cleaning our bodies are trying to do.
Once your body begins to fight an infection, the mucus gears up and jumps in to get white blood cell waste out of the way. As our blood cell heroes fall, the mucus takes their waste with it as it leaks out of the body.
Normally, mucus is clear. But if the body is fighting a bacterial enemy, the mucus will become green or yellow as the white blood cells fight. When fighting the common cold (which is a virus, too small to fight), our white blood cells play less of a role so the mucus remains clear. So, if you're sick, look in your tissues and it might give you a clue of a bacterial versus viral infection.
Often we relate mucus with sinus pressure. But before you reach for a tissue, Dr. Spiegel reminds that pressure problems are completely different.
Sinuses are sensitive to pressure changes because, like in an airplane, they regulate the pressure inside your head as the pressure changes outside. When you get sick, the tissues in your nose begin to swell. As the natural doorways in your sinuses swell shut, you feel the pressure differences as pain in your sinuses.
Then, as our mucus levels build, we stock up on tissue, but some argue blowing your nose can actually make matters worse. When we blow, it's possible to push mucus further into our sinuses, creating more issues later. Sometimes it's better to let the goo come out naturally, or find a homeopathic way to open your sinuses (though beware Netipots).
Now that you've accepted that mucus is on your side, Dr. Spiegel offers strategies to manage mucus without compromising its helpful nature.
Drink lots of water: As mucus contains water, this will help keep your mucus from getting too chunky.
Take a hot shower: The steamy air with high humidity will help clear out your sinus passages as the mucus clears up. This is why the vapors from a hot bowl of soup help you breathe.
Gargle salt water: Mucus goes into solution (or liquefies) more easily in salt water. You can also use a salt water (or saline) spray for your nose to open the sinuses up a bit.
Drugs if need be: If your mucus gets out of control, drugs like guaifenesin (found in Mucinex) thin mucus fairly well.
Could technology replace this sticky gross stuff coming out of our heads in the future? Probably not.
"Constant medication attempts to treat the symptoms of the common cold, but we want to be careful not to outsmart Mother Nature. We don't want to clear the mucus to find out that we need it!" Dr. Spiegel said.