The rainbow of colors that you blow into a tissue can be an important health indicator. A cold? Allergies? Or could all of that mucus flying from your nostrils be a sign of something more serious? Your snot can be a great source to tell you what is wrong.
Not every runny nose is a bad sign. Besides being a gross annoyance when you’re sick, your mucus also plays an important part in keeping you healthy. Mucus captures dust and dirt in the air so it doesn’t go into your lungs. Another fun fact: Your body produces an average of 2 cups of mucus a day in order to keep you healthy.
Yellow/green—Congratulations, you have an infection! The green hue is caused by an enzyme produced by your white blood cells that are fighting off the infection. However, it takes more detail to determine if it’s viral or bacterial. Most acute sinus infections associated with a cold or upper respiratory infection are caused by viruses. Viral infections typically last 5 to 7 days and then start to improve. Antibiotics won’t help a viral infection, so you can’t pop a pill to get better. However, you can ease the discomfort with nasal rinses. Using a Neti Pot or sinus rinsing bottle, mix ¼ teaspoon of sea salt (or other non-iodized salt) with 1 cup of warm distilled water—this will flush out your sinuses and maintain moisture.
If the thick mucus and nasal obstruction persists beyond a week, or initially improves and then starts to get worse, it may indicate that the viral infection has progressed to a bacterial infection. Antibiotics may be helpful in shortening the duration of a bacterial sinus infection, but if your symptoms do not improve after 10 days it’s time to see a doctor for further treatment and diagnosis. It could be a sign of acute or chronic sinusitis, untreated allergies, or an infection not related to your sinuses.
Clear—If you have a runny nose with clear mucus, this is most likely caused by allergies. Allergies trigger your mucus membranes to produce histamines, which cause your cells to make more phlegm. Taking an anti-histamine will help stop excess fluid production. Saline sinus rinses are also helpful, as they flush out the allergens from your nasal passages and prevent over-drying.
Red (blood)—Finding blood in your boogers is most likely caused by dry air. Like chapped lips, the thin tissue in your nose cracks. So you need to amp up your sources of moisture. Use a saline nasal spray, and try using a humidifier in your bedroom. And your bloody nose is no cause for worry—most likely your nasal passages are too dry. You’ll notice more frequent bleeds in the winter.
Yellow/grey—Thick, rubber cement-like mucus that has this appearance may indicate you have nasal polyps. The polyps are small pearl-shaped growths most likely caused by damaged mucus membranes. Symptoms include numbness in one nostril, blockage, and loss of smell or taste. Polyps usually form from long-term swelling and irritation of nasal tissue due to allergies or asthma, and about 4 percent of people get nasal polyps, according to the Journal of Therapeutics and Clinical Risk Management. Polyps are treated with steroids—usually in a spray—or sometimes surgery is required.
Grey—If you are blowing grey chunks of debris from one side of your nose and have bad tasting nasal drainage, you could have a fungal sinus infection. These are different from viral or bacterial infections because the fungi feeds on your nasal tissue—and reproduces. Fungal sinus infections may occur due to a previous nasal injury or long-term nasal inflammation, as well as a weakened immune system. Growths called “fungus balls” develop in the cheek sinus as clumps of fungal spores. The fungus balls must be removed by surgery.
Bonus: Your snot smells. If there is very foul smelling mucus from one side and pain or fullness in the cheek sinus, this could the sign of a dental infection that has spread to the cheek sinus. While antibiotics may be helpful, the tooth most likely needs to be addressed with a root canal or extraction. A CT scan or dental X-ray could evaluate the tooth.