7 Surprising Facts About Your Nose
The critical life functions that our facial organs perform may seem pretty obvious. Yet, when it comes to the nose, there is more than meets the eye.
Contributor: Michael Benninger, MD
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Our noses, along with our eyes and mouths, are the facial points of our appearance and – in many ways – our identity. The nose is prominently visible from the front and side, and in many cases, we can determine ethnicity from the size and shape of the nose. The critical life functions that our facial organs perform may seem pretty obvious. Yet, when it comes to the nose, there is more than meets the eye.
Here are seven surprising facts about your nose:
This nasal breathing role is critical in newborns, who must breathe through their noses almost all the time. This is a unique feature related to the configuration of their throats that allow them to breathe and suckle at the same time without choking. This cannot happen in older children or adults who have to stop breathing to swallow.
The nose plays another important role in breathing. There is a reflex neural mechanism that connects the nose to the lungs, called the nasal-pulmonary reflex. As the nose closes up, the lungs become more closed, and as the nose opens up, the lungs open up. It’s difficult to know how big a factor this is. But it may be important when there’s difficulty breathing or a high volume of breathing with exercise. This may be why some elite athletes use nasal strips to open their noses during exercise.
Now you know why your throat feels dry when you’ve been breathing a long time through the mouth: The inhaled air didn’t get humidified in the nose.
Smell plays a key role in taste. We have four primary tastes: bitter, sour, sweet and salty. All of the refinements in taste are in fact related to smell. That’s why people feel that food is tasteless when their ability to smell is decreased.
The sense of smell is not only for pleasure; it is necessary for safety. We need our smell to detect smoke, spoiled food and some toxic gases. People who have lost their sense of smell need to have alarms for these gases and they have to be careful with what they eat.
Lastly, smell may be important in identification. Many people can identify those close to them by their smell, whether that’s through their characteristic lotion or perfume or their characteristic body odor.
It’s very hard to talk about the nose without mentioning the sinuses, which have a number of important and positive roles. The sinuses are air-filled structures in the head that make the head lighter and probably played an important role in allowing us to become upright. They also serve as air cushion shock absorbers that help protect the brain and eyes.
Sinuses are part of voice resonance. Sinuses also help control the amount of nitric oxide in the body and in the lungs. The potential value of nitric oxide would take an entire article to describe. But it appears that it plays positive roles in breathing and potentially in immune function.
Another interesting and widely debated area is the impact of pheromones. These are very important to reproduction in animals, as well as on human sexuality and stimulation. Particularly fascinating is a small accessory organ in the nose – the vomeronasal organ (VNO) – that is related to the olfactory system. Some refer to it as the sixth sense. The VNO is located at the base of the nasal septum or in the roof of the mouth and is present in almost all animals, including amphibians. In many animals (like rodents and dogs), the VNO is important. But in humans, VNO is largely vestigial. That means it’s non-functional or acts as an old remnant like the appendix. But some researchers believe that it still plays a role in pheromone and other chemical communication.
Most of us ignore our nose unless it gives us trouble, but clearly it’s one of the most versatile and elegant organs in the human body.
This post is based on one of a series of articles produced by U.S. News & World Report in association with the medical experts at Cleveland Clinic.