Most agree that nose-picking is an unseemly habit. But a casual observation of drivers (who seem to think no one can see them through clear glass) suggests that a lot of people pick when they believe no one’s watching.
Setting aside the shame of being busted knuckle-deep in nostril, can picking your nose hurt your health?
“Probably the number-one thing we worry about is digital trauma, which is a fancy name for bleeding related to picking,” says Dr. Brett Comer, a head and neck surgeon and assistant professor of otolaryngology at the University of Kentucky. The skin on the inside of the nose is more delicate than skin outside of it, and so more susceptible to damage, Comer says.
Once that damage occurs, the inside of the nose is also slow to repair itself. A scrape or cut inside the nostril will develop a crust or scab, which is irritating and takes a couple weeks to heal, Comer says. “You feel it, and you pick again, which reopens the wound and creates more scabbing, and so you keep picking,” he says. “It’s a vicious cycle.”
Picking-related infections are also a concern, says Dr. Vijay Ramakrishnan, an associate professor of otolaryngology at the University of Colorado. The undersides of fingernails are hotbeds for bacteria, and if a person’s picking is rough or frequent enough to abrade the skin inside the nose, any germs living on the fingertip or nail could make their way into that injury site. “Significant infections are rare,” Ramakrishnan says. But superficial infections, and even small pockets of bacteria-filled pus—known as abscesses—are not uncommon.
Sticking a finger in your nose can also make you sick. Germs that cause colds and flu need to make their way into your body in order to infect you, and your nostrils are among the few doorways that allow those microorganisms access to your insides. If you’ve been out and about all day—riding the subway, shopping, grabbing door handles—and you decide to jam your bacteria-coated finger in your nose, you might as well give your finger a lick while you’re at it.
In extreme cases, picking could even damage the nasal septum, which is the thin layer of cartilage separating your two nostrils, Ramakrishnan says. All-the-time picking can wear away the mucosal lining and underlying cartilage of the septum, opening a hole, he explains. His research has shown these sorts of septum perforations cause pain, nosebleeds and other symptoms, and are often hard to repair.
That said, nose-picking doesn’t exactly keep public health officials awake at night. But if social embarrassment isn’t enough to keep you from nose-mining, these health concerns are more good reasons to kick the habit.
What’s the best way to quit? Putting a bandage on your preferred picking digit may help you catch yourself before nostril penetration occurs. If your nose feels dry and irritated and these sensations make you want to pick, Comer recommends spritzing the insides of your nostrils with a saline spray and using a humidifier at night.
If you’re caught in the picking-bleeding-scabbing-picking cycle he mentioned above, Comer suggests swiping a little plain petroleum jelly on the irritated spot. That can help keep the area hydrated, and it should also aid healing. Trimming nose hairs can also cut down on irritation, and so help you resist the urge to pick.
If you can leave your nostrils alone for a couple weeks, you should be in the clear.