Getting to Know Your Nose

Getting to Know Your Nose

Ever hear that expression, "The answer is as plain as the nose on your face?" Well, when it comes to your nose, you may have more questions than answers.

You probably pay your nose little attention, unless it's stuffy, itchy, runny, or sneezy -- something that probably happens a lot if you suffer from seasonal allergies or chronic sinusitis. But for many of us, just how the nose functions -- and why things go wrong sometimes -- is a mystery. We know that thing in the middle of our faces is our "smellinator" (sometimes we wish it weren't), but the nose also filters the air we breathe, helps equalize pressure in the ear canal, and, of course, serves as an anchor for our reading glasses.

Yup, there's more to the nose than you might think. To help clue you in to its inner workings, we've excerpted some common schnoz questions from the expanded and revised edition of YOU: The Owner's Manual, by RealAge experts Mehmet Oz, MD, and Michael Roizen, MD. (Don't worry, it's not too graphic.)

Cold and Runny
Question: Why does my nose run in the winter? -- Betty F., 46
Answer: You have small hairs, called cilia, that continually milk secretions up your nose toward the sinuses. The temperature in the nose is usually around 80 degrees Fahrenheit (put down the thermometer; trust us on this one). But it can drop during cold weather, thus paralyzing these hairs. When the cilia cannot beat fast enough, the secretions drain down with gravity, and your nose "runs" faster than an open fire hydrant.

Sun Sneezer
Question: Why do you sneeze when you look at the sun? -- Kim, 32
Answer: The culprit is the photic sneeze reflex, which usually causes more than one sneeze and occurs in approximately 10% to 25% of the population. This genetic trait is thought to occur due to an accidental crossing of third-nerve signals in your brain, at the fifth cranial nerve nucleus (remember that the next time you're playing Trivial Pursuit). If you have a parent who is a sun sneezer, you have a 50% chance of being one as well.

Tweeze Trigger
Question: Why do I sneeze when I pluck my eyebrows? -- Catherine, 38
Answer: The sneezing reflex is often considered more complex than a calculus problem. A sneeze -- whether it's induced by pepper or allergies -- starts with an irritation to your nasal passages, which excites your trigeminal nerve. The sneezing center then sends impulses back along the facial nerve to your nasal passages, mucous glands, blood vessels, and eyelids (which is the reason you close your eyes when you sneeze). Plucking a hair from your eyebrow stimulates a nearby branch of the nerve that services your nasal passages and thus can instigate the process that causes you to sneeze.

There She Blows
Question: Is it dangerous to hold in a sneeze? -- Dina B., 47
Answer: It's best to let it fly (shielded by a hankie, preferably). The air expelled by sneezes travels up to 100 miles per hour, so holding in a sneeze could do a lot of damage. Fractures in the nasal cartilage, nosebleeds, burst eardrums, hearing loss, vertigo, or detached retinas are among the things that could occur. Plus, your body is trying to clear out your throat -- and that's a good thing. To help the sneeze come out, look at a bright light. This stimulates the optic nerve, which crosses wires with the sneeze center (see "Tweeze Trigger," above). The added irritation of an adjacent nerve will get the sneeze going.

As you've learned, there's more to the nose than meets the eye. So, next time you look in the mirror, remember all that your nose does for you. And, yeah, you'd look pretty funny without it!

Medically reviewed in February 2020.

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