The Snottiest of Snotty Ailments

By Anna Sachse

Posted March 13, 2008 in Mind Body Spirit

I once heard a doctor comment that there can’t possibly be a God because there’s no way an all-powerful being would be so stupid as to have created our sinuses. His “snotty” comment actually makes a fair amount of sense. No one is actually sure why we have sinuses in the first place, although some researchers think they are there for no other reason than to keep our heads from weighing too much. Sinuses are pockets of air, but if those pockets were solid bone, your head would weigh more (although we’re talking about something the size of your nose here, not a unicorn). The design of our sinuses is somewhat nonsensical and they can hurt like a bitch when they get infected, which happens almost too easily given the nonsensical design. We may not know what stupid does when it comes to our nose freeways, but let’s take a look at what stupid is.

According to, the human skull contains four major pairs of paranasal sinuses— the frontal sinuses (in the forehead), maxillary sinuses (behind the cheek bones), ethmoid sinuses (between the eyes) and the sphenoid sinuses (behind the eyes). These hollow air-filled sacks connect the space between the nostrils and the nasal passage, help insulate the skull and, interestingly, help give you the depth or tone of your voice.

All these sinuses are lined with a thin, moist layer of tissue, called a mucous membrane, which produces mucus (made up of water, salts, glycoprotein and other small cells). This mucus moistens the air you breathe and traps dust and germs that are determined to bust up your nose. On its surface, the membrane houses microscopic hairs called cilia which beat back and forth in waves to clear mucus from the sinuses through a narrow opening in the nose and move it on toward the throat to be swallowed. Yes—you eat snot everyday.

The problem, however, is that if any of the foreign bacteria normally present in the nasal passages happen to enter any of the poorly-protected sinuses, they can (and usually will) stick to the lining cells and cause sinusitis (sinus infection), instantly blocking the passageway. And then all hell breaks loose.

According to my new favorite health website,, when the tiny openings that drain the sinuses get blocked, the mucus, which is now being produced in excess due to the irritation, gets blocked. Like water in a stagnant pond, this excessive mucus makes a good home for bacteria, viruses or fungi to grow. Wham—you’re sick for days.

Almost 37 million people in the United States have sinusitis each year. Symptoms may include fever, persistent yellow or green nasal discharge, daytime cough, puffy eyes, bad breath or pain behind the eyes, forehead and cheeks.

Sinusitis is often bacterial and requires antibiotics for treatment, which requires a doctor’s visit. Never take old antibiotics without consulting with a doctor—your sinusitis could actually be viral, meaning antibiotics cannot help in any way. Unnecessary use of antibiotics is leading to new, nastier drug-resistant strains of viral infections.

But you can help promote drainage and relive pain at home by taking the following steps. Drink plenty of water to flush your system. Inhale steam three times per day for about 10 minutes by leaning over a bowl of boiling hot water with a towel over your head. Reduce mucus with expectorants—drugs that help to thin mucous secretions, enhancing drainage from the sinuses. The most common is guaifenesin (contained in Robitussin). Over-the-counter pain relievers can also help reduce inflammation and open airways.

Regardless, the good news about sinusitis is that it’s not contagious, so feel free to make out with anyone you please, greenish-yellow snot, bad breath and all.



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