Why does only one nostril become blocked when you are sick?


He never fails. By the time we have a wild swing in temperatures, which tends to happen frequently because we live in the Midwest, my sinuses are racing, which as you can tell by the size of the schnoz on my face ( that’s me in the photo above, 👋) can produce enough mucus for an entire army of noses. The snot factory will remain open 24 hours a day, seven days a week until the temperature stays in the same range for a few days. Even once this happens, it reduces production a bit, but never stops it completely. And other than constantly taking a decongestant, there’s nothing I can do about it. When I see the forecast for a drastic temperature change coming, all I can do is make sure I keep a box of tissues nearby. It’s like that. What I never understood is why it only happens on one side of my fucking nose.

It turns out there’s a lot more going on than just blowing air in and out of your lungs inside those two wind tunnels on your face.

After literally searching, “why does my nose only get stuffy on one side”, I found the reason. It’s thanks to the same soft tissue that, uh, let’s say, makes a soldier stand up and salute. Seriously.

A literal open and closed case

Woman blowing her nose on the couch in the living room

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As you sit, minding your own business, mindlessly inhaling and exhaling to keep you alive, your body autonomic nervous system, which also controls several internal functions such as heart rate and digestion without any thought on your part, protects your lungs from harsh, dry air by warming it up and moistening it with the mucus it creates in your nose . The process is labor intensive, so to protect itself from overwork, your nose alternates between which nostril takes in more air by performing what science calls a “nasal cycle.” In order to reduce the amount of air going in and out of the nostril, it gives a break, it pumps extra blood into the soft tissue, aka erectile, inside the sinus cavity. The tissue swells, limiting the amount of air that can pass through that side. Basically, this gives him an erection of the sinuses. After a few hours, he relaxes and repeats the process on the other side. This happens every day for our entire lives.

It’s a pretty impressive process, especially since it happens without our knowledge and has been happening since the day we took our first breath. But, it is not without its flaws. The nasal cycle doesn’t care if your sinuses are already a little swollen because your immune system is trying to fight off an illness or an allergy to something in the air. Just like a good worker bee, all it knows is to close one side and open the other over and over and over until you die.

As you may have already guessed, with the space already limited in your sinus cavity, the extra swelling causes even less, or if there is enough swelling no, air to pass through, you leaving a blocked or completely blocked nostril.

[Sources: Science Alert / Encyclopedia Britannica]

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