It’s a dirty little habit that many partake in, and few would admit to. As much as 91 percent of the population pick their noses from time to time. Many people do this to remove dry nasal mucus, or boogers, which can build up and irritate the nose. If you have allergies that clog your nasal passages, the temptation is even greater to eliminate them. And in some cases, picking your nose can become a compulsive habit, like biting your nails.
Researchers have found that nose picking is much more common in the animal kingdom than we previously thought. An October 2022 study published in the journal Zoology found that nose picking, known scientifically as rhinotillexis, is documented in at least 12 primate species.
Yes yes, a lemur with large eyes and surprisingly long fingers, lowers its pluckers through the nasal cavity to the pharynx. Gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans are also guilty of picking their noses in a pinch. It’s unclear why so many primates choose, especially given the crude fact that, as documented in the study, many ate their findings. Some researchers believe that it may be related to the taste or that it somehow boosts immunity.
Learn more: How similar are humans and apes?
Is it wrong to pick your nose?
When it comes to humans, digging can be a compulsive habit called rhinotillexomania, a form of repetitive behavior that can damage the nasal passages. For most people, however, nose picking is just a bad habit due to boredom or nervousness when we think no one is watching.
Still, it can be a habit worth breaking due to the risk of spreading pathogens. If you participate in a quick pick of your dried nasal mucus and then place that same hand on a doorknob or, worse, a potato chip, you are spreading disease without even realizing it. An October 2018 study published in European Respiratory Journal discovered that a common and deadly pneumonia-causing bacterium called Streptococcus pneumoniae was in the nasal passages and could be spread through the hands.
“[The] transmission of S.pneumoniae occurs primarily through indirect contact,” the study authors write. This “indirect contact” can occur when you pick and then shake hands or eat without washing your hands. Other research showed that nose pickers are over 18% more likely than non-nose pickers to wear the Staphylococcus aureusthe bacteria responsible for staph infections, in their noses.
Why do people pick their noses?
For most casual pickers, dry nasal passages are to blame, and a saline spray to keep the nose moist can help. It can also be helpful to treat allergies that clog your nasal passages and cause unnecessary discomfort. In others, it may be a stress-relieving activity that’s best dealt with by keeping your hands busy on something else like a stress ball or widget. If your kids are nose pickers, it’s worth drawing attention to the behavior (without embarrassing them) and explaining why nose picking is illegal. When you catch your young picker, walk him to the bathroom to wash his hands while you explain.
Learn more: All about allergies
In most cases, nose picking is a bad habit that is unlikely to cause health problems. Yet, in the age of COVID-19 and a particularly harsh flu season, this seems slightly more pernicious than before. But the bottom line is that many primates are foragers, although apes and apes dig openly, while humans are more likely to wait for a secret session.
Learn more: 4 crazy facts to know about your nose