BBC News: Why do we pick our nose?
Poking around inside our nostrils is potentially harmful, unhygienic and disgusting, so it’s baffling that it’s as common as it is, says Jason G Goldman.
Few of us will admit, but most of us do it. If we get caught red – handed, we experience regret and shame. And we tend to frown upon others when they do it in public. We are talking, of course, about reaching up into your nostrils with a finger in an effort to scrape out snot. Is nose – picking really that bad? How bad or prevalent is it, really? And why (really, why?) would anybody ever decide to see what snot tastes like?
“Rhinotillexomania” is the formal medical term used to describe the act of picking one’s nose. A pair of US researchers named Jefferson and Thompson conducted the first systematic scientific study of the phenomenon in 1995. They sent a survey by mail to 1,000 adult residents of Dane County, Wisconsin. Of the 254 that responded, a whopping 91% of their respondents confessed to picking their noses, while only 1.2% could admit to doing it at least once each hour. Two subjects indicated that their nasal mining habits interfered with their daily lives (markedly to moderately). And, to their surprise, two other people reported so much nose picking that they had actually picked a hole right trough their nasal septum, the thin tissue that separates the right and left nostrils.
Only about a quarter of those surveyed responded (it wasn’t a perfect study), and those who already had a personal interest in nose picking may have been more likely to complete and return the survey. Still, it underscored the likelihood that nose picking, is pretty widespread, despite its cultural taboos.
Doctors BS Srihari and Chittaranjan Andrade of the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences in Bangalore, India, five years later decided to look a little deeper into nose – picking. They reasoned that most habitual behaviours are more common among teenagers and kids than among adults, so it made sense to survey younger populations rather than older populations, to get a sense for how prevalent nose picking is. In addition, knowing that the Wisconsin study suffered from a possible response bias, they distributed their surveys in school classrooms, where they would have a much higher likelihood of getting a representative sample. They focused on four schools within Bangalore, one school where students came from higher – earning households, two whose students tended to come from middle – class families, and a fourth catering to children from families of lower socioeconomic status (SES).
In all, Srihari and Andrade compiled data from 200 teenagers. Almost all of them admitted to picking their noses, on average four times per day. We already knew this, so it’s not all that enlightening. But what are interesting are the patterns. Only 7.6% of students reported sticking their fingers into their noses more than 20 times each day, but nearly 20% thought they had a “serious nose – picking problem”. Most of them said they did it to clear out nasal debris or to relieve an itch, but 24 of them, i.e. 12%, admitted that they picked their nose because it felt good.
And it wasn’t just fingers. A total of 13 students said they used tweezers to pick their noses, and nine said they used pencils. 9 of them – 9! – admitted to eating the treasures obtained from their nose picking activities. Yum.
According to socioeconomic class, there were no differences; nose picking is something that truly unites us all. There were, however, some gender differences. girls were more likely to think it a bad habit, while boys were more likely to do it. Boys were also statistically more likely to have additional bad habits, like pulling out their hair (trichotillomania) or biting their nails (onychophagia).
Nose picking isn’t just a harmless activity, though. In some extreme cases, nose-picking can cause, or be related to, more serious problems, as Srihari and Andrade found when they reviewed the medical literature. In one case, surgeons could not achieve lasting, complete closure of a perforated nasal septum because a patient couldn’t stop nose picking, preventing the surgical site from healing. Then there was a 53 – year – old woman whose chronic nose picking not only carved a hole into her sinus, but she actually did a perforation of her nasal septum.
And there was a 29 – year – old man who had a previously undocumented convergence of rhinotillexomania (nose – picking) and trichotillomania (hair – plucking). His doctors were forced to make up with a new term: rhinotrichotillomania. His behaviour involved compulsively pulling out his nose hairs. His nose would become inflamed, every time his hair pulling got too extreme. To treat the inflammation, he began applying a solution that had the side effect of staining his nose purple. The purple stain concealed his visible nose hairs, to his surprise, making him far more relaxed. He was actually more comfortable leaving the house with a purple nose than with visible nose hairs. His doctors, who succeeded in treating him with drugs, describe his compulsion as a manifestation of body dysmorphic disorder, which is sometimes thought of as an “obsessive compulsive spectrum disorder”.
Nose for danger
Most of us can rest safe knowing that our discreet, occasional nose picking is probably not the pathological variety. It’s interesting that despite the fact that nose – hair plucking and nail – biting are well – recognised manifestations of obsessive – compulsive disorder, rhinotillexomania is generally not.
But that doesn’t mean it’s completely safe. A group of Dutch researchers, in a 2006 study, found that nose picking can help bacterial infections move around. They discovered that nose pickers at an ear, nose, and throat clinic were more likely to carry Staphylococcus aureus bacteria in their noses than those that are not picking their nose. They found something similar, among healthy volunteers: a positive correlation between nose – picking self – reported frequency and both the frequency with which their nasal cultures housed the nasty beasties, and the amount of S. aureus present in those cultures.
Why do we still do it, given all the potential, and these risks for provoking disgust in other people? There are no clear answers, but as Tom Stafford wrote recently about nail – biting, perhaps it’s a combination of the fact that our nose is within easy reach all the time and the simple satisfaction we derive from ‘tidying – up’– in other words, we pick it ‘because it’s there’.
Or perhaps nose picking is just evidence of laziness. When you feel the urge to clear your nostrils, fingers, after all, are never in short supply. Which is more than can be said about a box of tissues.
It’s gratifying to know that some researchers are still trying to understand the reasons we pick our noses and the consequences that arise from it. In 2001, the Indian researchers, Srihari and Andrade, were recognised for their work with an Ig Nobel prize, which is given for research that first makes you laugh and then makes you think. Andrade remarked, at the ceremony, “some people poke their nose into other people’s business. I made it my business to poke my business into other people’s noses.” Don’t forget to share the knowledge!