The Rewards of Pampering Your Nose

Runny or irritated nose? Treat it well, and you'll enjoy the smells of baked cookies pain free.

Medically Reviewed by Matthew Hoffman, MD on March 20, 2008
5 min read

Love it or not, your nose can't be ignored. It is a small but mighty part of our being. And a little pampering -- when a cold or allergies strike -- can go far.

The upside to having a nose is its faithful ability to detect wondrous aromas. Our nose serves as a sensor, helping us determine if a potential food source is toxic or edible, friend or foe. The nose knows whether it's coffee we're sniffing, spoiled leftovers -- or worse.

"In evolution, odors told us what was good for us, what was bad," says Pamela Dalton, PhD, MPH, a member of The Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. "It was part of our survival system. If something smelled bad, it was toxic. If it didn't smell good or bad, it was worth investigating. If it was the smell of cooked fat, it meant survival."

In fact, scientific evidence suggests -- though far from conclusively -- that a pleasing fragrance actually affects our physiology, helping us relax.

"When animals are exposed to certain scents, there are changes in their brain chemistry and hormone levels. There is also a reduced activity level, a measurable change in their behavior. But are they relaxed? It's hard to ask them," Dalton tells WebMD. "We're also not sure what that means in terms of people."

After all, there's another factor at work: "Our expectations affect our reactions," she says. "That's why bakery smells are enjoyable, probably because they take us back to our childhood."

For the best advice on pampering your snout, WebMD contacted those who know noses.

"When you've got a runny nose, the small blood vessels lining the nose become irritated," says Pedro Cazabon, MD, an internist at the Ochsner Clinic in New Orleans. "Blowing or rubbing your nose aggravates the nose skin, which is sensitive anyway."

Crazy temperature changes don't help either. In frigid outdoor air, blood vessels clamp down; warm indoor air opens them up, says Michele McDonald, MD, a professor of dermatology at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville.

"Any extremity, whether it's the nose or fingers, is affected by temperature changes because blood vessels are the first to react," she tells WebMD. "When blood vessels are clamped down, there's less blood flow to the skin, so skin becomes irritated; it's more susceptible to injury."

The lower humidity indoors and outdoors wreaks its own havoc -- further irritating nasal skin inside and out. "Your nose tends to dry out, especially the skin right underneath or between your nostrils," McDonald adds.

Saunas and steamy showers might seem like the answer to dry indoor air - and it's true that steamed heat will open up nasal passages. But that's a temporary fix that really doesn't help much. "Once you go into the cold air, they will clamp down, which only causes more nose irritation," Cazabon explains.

Likewise, humidifiers seem like a remedy to relieve dry indoor air. But they don't really help your nose's internal membranes. "It's fine to consider a humidifier if the air is really dry in your home, to make it more comfortable. But to give your skin moisture, you have to put something on it," McDonald adds.

In fact, many doctors don't advise using a portable humidifier at home. "They are prone to developing bacteria and mold, which can be released into the air and cause respiratory problems," Cazabon tells WebMD. "Humidifiers need to be cleaned regularly because of that risk."

A vaporizer, which puts out hot steam, is another option -- although it's best for relieving congestion when you have a cold. However, they are risky because they can burn anyone who overturns or gets too close to them.

Steamy baths, humidifiers, and vaporizers all have their place, says McDonald. "But they won't help your nasal skin. You must apply something to the skin."

The experts' advice:

  • Use saline nasal spray. "It is the best remedy for restoring moisture to mucus membranes," says Cazabon.
  • Minimize exposure to cold air. Wearing a scarf that covers your nose, so that it doesn't get exposed to extremes in temperature changes, can help. "Your breath adds humidity to the air inside the scarf," he adds.
  • Moisturize nasal skin every morning. Use a water-based moisturizer such as Oil of Olay, Neutrogena, or Lubriderm. "Vaseline is too thick for this job, because it closes off the skin and doesn't allow glands to secrete oil. Vaseline is great for lips because lips don't have those issues," says McDonald.
  • Choose a moisturizer that contains sunscreen.
  • Carry a small tube of moisturizer with you during the day to reapply. "This will help keep your nose comfortable all day long," McDonald adds.

Petroleum-based moisturizers like Vaseline are not advised for another reason, says Cazabon. "People who apply a lot to the nose, and wear it overnight, can aspirate it into their lungs, which can lead to problems like an abscess," he tells WebMD. "I don't want to be an alarmist, but you don't want a foreign substance in your lungs. Using a little within reason is fine, but many doctors prefer patients use water-based creams."

To pamper your olfactory sense (which registers odors), try scented oils like bath oils, Dalton suggests. "They have a nurturing effect. When I'm trying to fall asleep in a strange hotel, having an odor that makes me think of home is very relaxing, very comforting."

To wake yourself up, try menthol, cinnamon, eucalyptus, and chili peppers, she says. These produce the sensory irritation of pungency and burning, which is tied to the trigeminal nerve, a nerve in the face that is part of the body's pain response. "Because we experience those chemicals in very low doses, they don't cause pain -- but they do arouse us," she explains.

But do certain smells act as aphrodisiacs? "There's nothing that's universal to everyone," Dalton tells WebMD. "It has to do with whatever in your environment relaxes you. People who are tense are not likely to feel amorous. If the scent of your boyfriend's cologne relaxes you, it's an aphrodisiac for you. If the smell of pumpkin pie relaxes you, then yes, it's an aphrodisiac for you. With scent, if it's a positive thing, then it works for you."