One of the biggest annoyances in life is also one of its greatest mysteries, at least for the majority of us. It happens when you’re just starting to notice signs you may be getting sick. You’re tired, your eyes hurt, you have a headache, and, perhaps the most noticeable, only one side of your nose is stuffed up.
This strange side effect of illness forces us to become mouth breathers, because one nostril simply does not provide enough oxygen. Oh, and we also get to be irresistibly attractive when we want to sniff and must use one of our fingers to block the clogged the nostril. Believe it or not, our bodies aren’t trying to be scumbags and there is science behind this strange phenomenon. Let’s learn what causes this and maybe then we’ll get a little less irritated when it happens. Probably not, but give it a try.
Don’t pay attention to it now because then you’ll start breathing weird, but during the day, our nostrils take shifts on which one will handle the heavier breathing. In other words, one nostril is always handling more breath than the other one at any given time. We don’t notice it because it’s controlled entirely by the autonomic nervous system, which also controls bodily functions like digestion and heart rate. Your nose uses this system for what is called the “nasal cycle.”
The nasal cycle happens a few times during each day, but we only notice it when our nose is stuffed up. Our body sends more blood to the nostril that is “on duty.” This increase in blood flow can cause congestion in one of your nostrils for up to six hours. This cycle does have a positive benefit for us, though; it is believed that it improves our sense of smell. Some scents are easier to pick up with fast-moving air, while others benefit from slow-moving air. Since this cycle provides both types of air (because one nostril is always open wider than the other), we get to receive all scents. Now, this can be good or bad, because as we all are very well aware of, not everything smells like roses!
This cycle also aids in the health of our nostrils. If one of our nostrils was always taking in and exhaling the majority of air, it would get dried out and those tiny nose hairs would start to die off. While they may look gross, they actually serve in protecting our noses from contaminants that shouldn’t be in there. When you’re sick, it’s the nostril that is “off duty” that feels way more clogged than the other one. The next time this happens, just realize that it’s a natural process which allows you to smell all sorts of delightful scents. It can’t hurt to ask the clogged up nostril to take a shorter break, though.