QUESTION

My 25-year-old son often picks his nose. Is this just an annoying habit or could there be some other reason he does this so much? And can it be harmful?

ANSWER

Nose-picking isn’t done only by kids. We all do it from time to time—hopefully when no one else is looking! But it’s not just unsightly. You may be surprised to learn that it can be harmful to your health as well. The skin on the inside of the nose is delicate and can be damaged easily. A scrape caused by picking could result in bleeding and then the formation of a scab. This can promote more irritation and picking. Consequently, a scrape in the nose can take weeks to heal. And because the undersides of fingernails are hotbeds for the growth of bacteria and viruses, skin infections or another illness such as the flu can result. The nose is one of the few ways that bacteria and viruses can easily enter the body. Tip: Keeping your nails very short will make it less likely that picking will cause harm and washing your hands often will help prevent the spread of germs. In rare cases, excessive picking can cause a perforation in the nasal septum, the cartilage that separates the two nostrils, causing pain, nosebleeds, breathing difficulties and other symptoms. A perforation may not heal on its own and surgery to repair it is not always successful.

WHY PEOPLE PICK

The usual cause of nose-picking is that there are little pieces of dried nasal mucus, often called “boogers,” in the nasal cavity. These are formed when the nasal cavity is excessively dry—mucus becomes thick and remains in place to form boogers. They can be irritating, so some people try to remove them by “picking their nose.” Dryness in the nasal cavity can be caused by many factors including not drinking enough water…dry air on an airplane…being exposed to harsh chemicals such as paint thinners…and drying medications, such as antihistamines, which are commonly used for allergies. To help reduce dryness in the nose: Use a saline nasal spray, such as Ayr Saline Nasal Mist or NeilMed NasaMist…or a gel such as NeilMed NasoGel, to keep the nasal membranes moist. These should be applied twice a day. Bonus: The gel works especially well for people who tend to get sick when they fly—it coats nasal membranes, helping to prevent bacteria/viruses from entering the body. Running a humidifier at night can also combat dryness. And, of course, drink plenty of water. Sometimes, nose-picking is due more to habit than a dry nose. If this is the case, here are some tips for kicking the picking habit…
  • A bandage on the picking finger will make the nose harder to pick and serve as a reminder not to pick.
  • Replacing the habit with a healthier habit when the urge comes on—for example, taking a few deep breaths, texting a friend, keeping your hands busy such as with knitting or some other activity or taking a quick walk—can also serve to reduce picking.
  • Sometimes, picking is done at specific times—perhaps while watching TV or driving or when especially stressed. Just recognizing when it’s more likely to be done can help reduce the incidence.