While mucus is a telltale sign of an oncoming cold, knowing what's in your tissue could tell you more about your health than you think
Start stocking up on tissues in bulk—cold and flu season is fast approaching. That means you are about to become gag-worthily familiar with certain bodily functions like mucus (Psst... School yourself in these 5 Easy Ways to Stay Cold-and Flu-Free.)
You probably think of snot as a warning sign for a miserable bed-ridden week ahead, but mucus is actually one of the unsung heroes of your health, as shown in a new TED-Ed video. Katharina Ribbeck, Ph.D., professor of biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, shared more than you'd ever want to know about your runny nose, namely that the slippery stuff is a heck of a lot more than a side effect. It's actually a helpful barometer for whether you should check in with your doctor, explains Purvi Parikh, M.D., allergist and immunologist with the Allergy & Asthma Network in New York.
Since you're about to snuggle up with your mucus more than any other time of year, familiarize yourself with four facts regarding what's in that tissue.
1. Your body produces more than one liter of mucus a day, Ribbeck's lecture reveals. And we're talking when you're not infected and producing the slippery stuff on overdrive. Why do you need so much of it? Mucus helps lubricate anything not covered in skin, so it helps your eyes blink, keeps your mouth hydrated, and keeps your stomach free of acids.
2. It keeps you from being sick 24/7. One of the most important functions of mucus is to continually clear bacteria and dust from your respiratory tract like a slimy conveyor belt, as the video describes it. This happens so that bacteria doesn't hang around long enough to give you an infection. Plus, the largest molecules—called mucins—help create a barrier against pathogens and other invaders, which is why your body's first line of defense against bacteria is to producing the stuff (and turn your nose into a faucet).
3. It can tell you you're sick before you realize it. "Increased volume, changes in color, or thicker consistency are all signs you may have an infection or some changes in your health," says Parikh. Normal is white or yellow, but a green or brownish color can denote an infection. (Aleady feeling sick? Here's How to Get Rid of a Cold in 24 Hours.)
4. Green isn't always a sign of a cold. When you have an infection, your body produces white blood cells, which contain an enzyme that causes your snot to become discolored, Ribbeck's lecture reveals. However, other factors (like allergies) can mimic a virus and cause the change in color as well, Parikh says. How can you tell when you're coming down with a cold? "Usually with viruses, the onset is more sudden and it goes away within days, whereas with allergies and asthma it can be more chronic," she explains. And associated symptoms are helpful: If you have a fever, cough, nasal congestion, or headaches as well, definitely see your doc to find out if it is something more alarming than allergies.