In the Loop

News and views from across Mayo Clinic

February 3, 2015

Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About Mucus

By In the Loop

Man standing outside, blowing his nose into a tissueIt's a question Mayo’s Erin O’Brien, M.D., gets a lot, she says, often while "looking up people's noses." Why did she decide to become an ear, nose and throat surgeon? Her response is simple and to the point: "I’m a surgeon, and when people are miserable from their sinuses, and I can operate and make them feel better, it’s great,” she tells the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

While most of us won't require surgery, it's a good bet that given the time of year, at least a few of us are enjoying our own sort of sinus misery. Thankfully, Dr. O'Brien can lend some perspective here, too, as she did when the newspaper asked about what happens inside our bodies when we get sick, and the role mucus and healthy sinuses play in staying healthy. The writer was, um, particularly fascinated by her mucus expertise. (We’ll leave out some of the more graphic details.)

“Most people are shocked by how much mucus we make,” Dr. O’Brien says. When we’re sick, our sinuses kick it up a notch and produce more, "for reasons," she tells the paper, "that are both helpful and nefarious." On one hand, the annoying drip is actually a sign “that our body is working, which is a cool thing,” she says. Dr. O'Brien says that our sinuses produce more mucus when we're sick to help "capture those unwelcome intruders" before they make it into our lungs. “Your nose is sort of a humidifier," she says, "so when you’re breathing in the dry air, the mucus warms and humidifies it before it gets to your lungs. Plus, mucus catches all the dust and bacteria and allergens and pollen flying through the air, so it’s like a filter.”

On the other hand, Dr. O'Brien says that viruses like the common cold appear keen to spread their misery. "And how better to do that," reporter Kim Ode writes, "than by spurring the production of mucus, which then gets blown into tissues, which then are handled by fingers, which then corrupt every door handle, every checkout line pen, every grip of a grocery cart." (Okay, we’re not touching anything. Ever again.) The solution, of course, is to wash your hands. A lot. And then wash them some more. (Gladly.)

You can read more about the inner-workings of our sinuses here, if you dare. Then, share your comments and share this story with other via the In the Loop blog.

Tags: Dr. Erin O'Brien, Otolaryngology, Practice story

I love the title. It made me chuckle. You guys are a stitch!


Great article with good info! I’ve had sinus issues all of my life, which have also affected my sense of smell. This last summer, my dog was sprayed by a skunk. I let the dog back into the house, not knowing because I couldn’t smell it. My daughter came home a couple hours later and said the house reeked of skunk odor. By then the dog had been several places in the house. Not a fun clean up. It would be nice to get my sense of smell back. Dr. O’Brien, can you help me regain my sense of smell?

Please sign in or register to post a reply.
Contact Us · Privacy Policy