The nose knows it's cold out -- and it runs

medical matters

January 19, 2007|By Judy Foreman

Why does my nose run in the cold?

Nobody knows for sure, but one reason is that the nose has to "work overtime," when the inspired air is cold, said Dr. Ralph Metson, a sinus surgeon at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary.

The nose is a kind of "fancy air conditioner" whose job is to warm and humidify the air we inhale, Metson wrote in an e-mail. When the air we breathe in is unusually cold, the nose kicks into high gear to warm and humidify it - blood vessels dilate, mucosal tissue swells and glands secrete extra mucus. This extra mucus manifests itself as a runny nose.

In addition, as the newly heated, newly moist air is exhaled, the moisture in it condenses when it hits the cooler, outside temperature, and then drips out as fluid, said Dr. Andrew Lane, director of the division of rhinology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

For people who have a major problem with this kind of runny nose, technically called "vasomotor rhinitis," there is a prescription nasal spray called ipratropium bromide, which may help damp down this reaction.

Is it dangerous to get your tongue pierced?

In most cases, no, but it's pretty stupid.

Yeah, yeah, it's a form of self-expression. But consider the poor, 18-year-old Italian woman whose case was written up recently in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

After getting her tongue pierced, she wound up with facial pain that her doctors described as "severe, constant and paroxysmal," meaning she had sudden bursts of extra-intense pain as well. It seems that the piercing irritated nerves that run from the tongue to the face.

The doctors noted in passing that the medical literature contains reports of several other complications - all, like this one, quite rare, but noteworthy. They include inflammation of the lining of the heart, lockjaw (tetanus) and even abscess in the brain.

These last three "are very good reasons why not to ever have your tongue pierced," Dr. Jeffrey Dover, a dermatologist at SkinCare Physicians in Chestnut Hill, Mass. wrote in an e-mail. In a telephone conversation, Dover explained that the kind of facial pain suffered by the Italian woman "can ruin your life."

Surprisingly, although there are no statistics on the issue, the risk of infection from tongue piercing appears to be relatively low, provided the instruments used to pierce the tongue are sterile.

Dr. Thomas Kilgore, a professor of oral surgery at the Boston University School of Dental Medicine, said, "To be very honest, our mouths are quite resistant to our own organisms. Most bacteria in the mouth are our own bacteria, so there is a certain degree of immunity."

There is a risk of chipping teeth from the metal stud, and if one piece of the stud gets loose at night, it could be inhaled into the lungs, possibly triggering infection.

Bottom line? Pierce your ears, not your tongue.

Send your questions to foreman@baltsun.com.

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