What is snot?

What is snot?

Snot is snot to be sniffed at – and on an ordinary day you probably make 1‑1.5 litres of it without even trying. In the midst of a cold, though, it can feel like a lot more.

It’s set to a be a hard Winter of sniffles in the UK, with the common cold making a come back with a vengeance as people are mixing again post-lockdowns. It’s also predicted to be a bumper flu season - with Covid infections already on the winter-rise, too.

As icky as snot might be, it also has a serious job to do. So what is it, where does it come from, what does it do for us, and what could you be doing to make yourself feel better when you’re all snotty?

What is snot?

The technical, and just as gross, term for snot is mucus. You get mucus in various places in your body, but respiratory mucus lines your lungs, throat, mouth, sinuses and nose.

Most of the time you won’t even realise that you’re producing it and swallowing it all day every day. But when we pick up something like an infection, your body can produce more of the liquid secretions that carry it, and it also changes consistency and becomes a LOT more noticeable.

Where does snot come from?

Snot is produced by membranes in the nose and sinuses.

Why do we have it?

It’s very useful stuff. It protects your respiratory system and keeps everything nice and moist, so it doesn’t dry out as the air you breathe flows through. It also acts as a filter, catching dust and allergens, and it contains antibodies and enzymes designed to kill off harmful bacteria. It’s basically like a protective barrier that stops nastiness getting into your body.

Why do we get more of it when we have a cold?

When a cold causes your nose to run, it’s a way for your body to fight back and get rid of irritants or infections. More mucus makes it harder for bacteria to settle and takes it out of your body – either into a tissue as you blow your nose or down your throat and into your stomach and… out that way.

Why does snot stuff up my nose so I can’t breathe?

Often it’s not the snot that’s making you stuffy. It’s actually the inside of your nose that’s become swollen. It’s known as congestion, and people often take decongestants to reduce the swelling. The trouble is, they can dry you out, and less or thicker mucus might stuck in the back of your throat (known as a post-nasal drip) – and will contribute towards a sore throat and cough.

What colour is snot/mucus?

Day to day it’s clear, but when you have a cold it can turn yellowish or even green. That’s down to your body producing more white blood cells and sending them to your respiratory system to fight the infection. If it turns red, it’s most likely to be because your nose is sore from being dried out and blown.

However, if you’re coughing up phlegm or blood from deeper inside your body, it might indicate bleeding lower in your respiratory system, and it’s time to take it to a Doctor to check you’re not developing a more serious infection.

When is snot a more serious problem?

Too much mucus or phlegm that your body can’t get rid of can block airways - and could indicate a chest infection. Bacterial infections might need a course of antibiotics, and in the worst cases even hospital treatment.

Your snot/mucus can help here, too, and can be sent off for testing to work out what’s making you poorly and how to treat it.

According to the NHS, you should also see a Doctor if your symptoms don’t improve after 3 weeks, if they suddenly get worse, if you get a high fever, feel short of breath or experience chest pain. Those with pre-existing medical conditions should also be ready to take their cold more seriously.

What can I do to start to feel better when I’m snotty?

Most snot is down to the common cold, and there’s not an awful lot that can be done about it. But here’s 5 ways you can start to feel better, and less snotty.

  1. Get vaccinated

The best way to stave off the most serious snot-causing (and potentially far worse) illnesses is to make sure you’ve had your Flu and Covid vaccines.

  1. Stay hydrated

The drier your body is, the thicker the mucus is, and the worse everything gets. Keep drinking plenty of water to stay properly hydrated. It might also help to keep the air moist, too, so you’re not drying out and clogging up when you breathe.

  1. Rest up, with your head up

With some colds you’ll be able to go about your normal day. But trying to carry on when you’re really poorly does not make you a trooper – it makes you more likely to stay sicker for longer, and more likely to spread it around.

Give your body a chance to get better, and keep doing all the stuff we learned from Covid – staying away from people, washing your hands a lot, and sneezing/coughing into a tissue.

While you’re resting, try raising your head a little so the mucus doesn’t collect at the back of your throat.

  1. Head to a pharmacy

Your first port of snot-call should be your local pharmacy, who can help you work out what over-the-counter medicines might help to alleviate your symptoms, from paracetamol to decongestants, throat sweets and cough medicines.

  1. Get some advice

If you’re not sure if your cold is turning into something nastier, or if you’re doing the right things to look after the world’s leading snot producers (small children), then you can turn to your Equipsme plan.

Our Health at Hand helpline is run by Axa Health, and you can call 24/7 to speak with a nurse, who can also access advice from pharmacists. You can also make out-of-hours appointments with our 24/7 GP, too.

Find out more about our nurse advice helpline
Find out more about our GP service
Read Natasha and Sarah‘s story