A family doctor explains why your nose runs when you have a cold.

[Editor’s note: This article was originally hosted on MyFamilyDoctorMag.com, our sister site.
It’s now featured here as part of our new
general-health section.]

hand-tissue-coldby Susan Louisa Montauk, M.D.

Q. Why does my nose run when I have a cold?

A. Drip, sniff, drip, blow, sniff, then drip again … a facial faucet of fluid refuse! Why does your mystifying modulator of mucus insist on vying for center stage when a head cold appears, dripping throughout every waking hour, then continuing on, interrupting the healing sleep that feels long overdue? Well, for one thing, it thinks it’s helping.

How a Health Nose “Runs”

The healthy, happy nose loves to play The Defensive Protector. It makes mucus, but just enough of the sticky stuff to work in harmonious consort with the microscopic, flowing hairlike things called cilia that line the nasal cavity (behind your nose). This mucociliary bond strains out particles like dust or bacteria that might otherwise make it to your lungs.

Why a Sick Nose Runs

When a head cold invades, The Defensive Protector ramps things up a notch or 10. And an increase in mucus brings with it an increase in antiseptic enzymes and immunoglobulins (antibodies). The fighter-filled fluid washes out some of the germs.

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So Is It Good for My Nose to Run When I Have a Cold?

Hmmm … if mucus is protective, why not just keep our suffering noses flowing to the max? That would be because plenty of germs avoid its defenses. Other parts of the immune system are what really take care of the cold.

Plus, not only does that wonderful mucus not get you well any sooner, but it can be downright annoying and sometimes keep you from sleeping. So, if a relatively safe medication dries up a nose and allows for much-needed rest, it might be worth considering.


Board-certified family doctor SUSAN LOUISA MONTAUK, M.D., was a professor of clinical family medicine at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.

Original article appeared in September/October 2007 issue of My Family Doctor magazine. This article is not meant as individual advice. Please see our disclaimer.

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