Can you die from picking your nose?

Dear Cecil:

Is picking one's nose harmful? Sometimes when I pick mine, nasal hairs come out with the other stuff. In light of the filtering functions I have heard ascribed to these hairs, is there any damage to the olfactories?

Cecil replies:

Cecil replies:

The chief danger of picking your nose, Leo, is that you will gross your friends out of existence and wind up as a richly-deserving social pariah. Your sense of smell is probably not in any great danger. The loss of some nose hair, whether by picking or otherwise, is normal; the missing hairs eventually grow back. On the other hand, nose hairs do indeed serve as filters, so if you are accustomed to picking with such vigor that your nostrils are entirely laid to waste, you may want to exercise some restraint. Fortunately, the nose is equipped with various other defenses besides nose hairs, notably the turbinate bones. These are essentially baffles lined with mucous membranes in the nasal cavities that impart a swirling motion to inhaled air, causing any airborne dust to smack into the membranes and go no further.

There is one danger from nose-picking, however, and that is that you will break the skin somehow and give root to an infection, which could subsequently migrate inward–i.e., into the base of the brain. Blood from the nose (to be precise, from a triangular region of the face centered on the nose) drains to the rear of the head, where it joins various other veins, including the ones that drain blood out of your brain. If a nasal infection were to travel downstream and block this junction point, a condition known as intracranial thrombophlebitis, you’d have big problems. Not only would blood circulation be impaired, but any sort of surgical treatment might well result in disfigurement. Hence the high school injunction not to pick yer zits. Words to live by, Leo.

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