The Truth About Nose-Picking

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Nose-picking is defined as the act of inserting a finger (or in some cases objects) into one's own nostrils with the aim of removing a piece of dried nasal secretion1... Obviously, we all know that. Nose-picking in public (or referring to it) is generally frowned upon and perceived as a disgusting bad habit. Despite this, it is an ubiquitous behaviour. Nose-picking is practiced by the majority of individuals - regardless of gender, age and cultural background. Nose-picking is, bar a few rare exceptions, harmless.


Few things are more embarrassing than being caught nose-picking. Despite the fact that nose-picking is in most cases innocuous (the only person that can possibly be affected or harmed by nose-picking is the nose-picker2), it commonly finds less acceptance than audible flatulence or eructation - regardless of the socio-cultural environment3.

Few systematic surveys have been carried out to characterize nose-picking habits, but the few existing studies show that the vast majority - 70 to 90% of the adult population4 - has at least once picked their nose; although only a minority would confess if asked directly, and even fewer people would admit they occasionally still do it. It can be estimated that 10% of nose-pickers also occasionally practice mucophagy (i.e. the oral consumption of semi-dry mucus), but the real number could be significantly higher. Upon closer inspection, it is possible to classify the phenomenon of 'nose-picking' in different categories.

Innocent Nose-Picking

Nose-picking usually starts at a very early age. Babies playing around with their little fingers soon discover that they have different orifices in the middle of their faces into which the finger can be inserted. So, basically the first motivation behind nose-picking is because the nose is there to be explored. Only a few years later the child will find out that nose-picking is considered to be a bad-habit. Even so, children and adults will occasionally pick their nose out of boredom.

Occasional Nose-Picking

There are more or less sensible reasons for nose-picking, however, for example to remove a crust of dried nasal secretion (pieces of dry nasal secretion are commonly known as 'bogies' or 'boogers', and are sometimes not as dry as assumed) that might be obstructing the nose, hurting, itching or simply hanging out of the nose giving the person wearing it a disadvantageous appearance. In fact, it is often more advisable to remove the dried secretion carefully with a (clean) finger (or a finger wrapped in a handkerchief) than trying to snort it out (snorting involves high pressures in the nasal chambers and it may injure the nasal septum if not performed properly).

Compulsive Nose-Picking

In medical parlance the condtition of compulsive nose-picking is called 'rhinotillexomania', a relatively recent word coined in analogy to 'trichotillomania' (the compulsive desire to pull out one's hair). From 'rhino-' (Greek meaning 'nose'), 'tillesthai' (Greek meaning 'to pull, to pick'), an additional 'exo' (Greek for 'out') and 'mania' (Greek for 'obsession'). Compulsory nose-picking implies that the person doing it does not have full control over the bad habit (like notorious nail-biters suffering from onychophagia). At the date of writing, however, it is still not clear whether rhinotillexomania can be classified as a pathological or as a psychological disorder. The difference between those is faint, but in the first case rhinotillexomania is classified as a disease, that would be treated in a hospital, whereas in the second case the patient would be treated by psychologist, in sessions.

Harmful Nose-Picking

In some cases nose-picking has been identified as the cause of frequent nose bleeds. In very rare cases nose-picking has been reported to stand behind more serious health problems. The act of nose-picking taken for itself is harmless, however the picture changes dramatically when:

    Picking too hard (eg scratching with fingernails)
    Picking too deep (eg inserting a finger beyond the first joint)
    Picking with objects
    Picking with contaminated fingers

The last item in this list can be considered the most dangerous factor, since in this way different microbes can become shuttled into the human respiratory system. Despite this, pathogenic infections related to nose-picking are found to be quite rare.

Help: My child is picking his/her nose.

Nose-picking in young age is a very common phenomenon. Often parents seek to confront this, but find the problem hard to tackle. The central advisory guideline is: Don't panic, keep calm and avoid making a big issue out of nose-picking. A more profound understanding of the problem is gained by adressing the following question: Why is my child doing it?

Itching / uncomfortable bogies: Sometimes children are caught picking their nose because they have something (usually boogers) in their nose which they want to remove, but are too lazy or too busy to do it in an appropriate place5. In any case, children usually try to conceal the act of nose-picking and are embarassed if they notice that they have been spotted. Raising an eyebrow, or signalling reproval in some other non-verbal form is normally effective enough to get the message across. Often nose-picking might be a symptomatic behaviour resulting from too dry an atmosphere (eg air conditioner, excessive heating).6

Boredom: Busy children rarely pick their nose. At young age (between 3 and 7) the simplest way to keep your child's finger out of his or her nostrils is to give the child something do with his or her hands. It is important in this case not to give the nose-picking any special mention. Making an issue out of nose-picking might cause the problem to escalate, which brings us to the next case.

Catching the parents' attention: Children between 5 and 9 years often use nose-picking as a tool to catch the parents' attention ('Stop it, Brian!'). The best way to confront this is to give the child the momentary attention he or she is requesting. At the same time it is important to avoid referring to the nose-picking in a special way. Should this be necessary, however, it is important to conceal any irritation. Mentioning the nose-picking in a casual way should prevent escalation to the next level.

Irritating parents: Children between 7 and 10 years discover that nose-picking can be used to provoke or (preferrably) to embarass their parents. An escalation of nose-picking to this point, however, is very rare. Should this be the case the best way to solve this problem is to keep calm7. If need be it is advisable to talk about it with the child in private. Nose-picking usually does not escalate further8, for example, to rhinotillexomania. Nose-picking usually stops being a problem between parents and children older than 7 - partly thanks to peer dynamics.9

Miscellaneous Stuff and Links

There are many tales and urban-legends associated with nose-picking. One famous example describes the ancient profession of royal nose-picker in the court of pharaoh Tutankhamun. Another one interprets ancient cave-paintings depicting a person during the act of nose-picking. Although not proven wrong, these accounts seem to be relatively far fetched: The profession of royal nose-picker would have appeared on other periods of Egyptian history and cave-men certainly had other fish to fry than perpetuating nose-pickers.

It has been reported that some people have developed tools to aid in nose picking. A well-sorted ENT clinic will not lack tools to remove objects from a person's nose.

Nasal mucus, the stuff bogies are made of, is an excellent and very sticky lubricant. Its function is to coat the inner part of the nose in order to trap dust and dirt that might be in the air.

Nose-picking is common amongst primates.

People who catch you picking your nose may say the following: 'Working up there next week?', 'You'll get stuck like that', 'Unhook!', 'Careful you'll damage your brain', 'Cleaning the Ballroom?', 'Mining for soft jade?', 'Any gold up there?', 'Give us a wave when you get to the bridge!', 'Don't pick me, I'm not playing!', 'Pick me a winner!', 'Have you got a miner's license?'

Nose-picking, a lowly subject, has often been used in defamatory propaganda - clearly, to invoke the notion that (place your favourite enemy here) is a barbarian brute.

A paediatrician's advice on the subject of nose picking can be found on

For more information enter 'Rhinotillexomania' in the search engine of PubMed.

1Note that nose picking stands in opposition to snorting, sucking or wiping mucus from runny noses.2Under the tacit assumption that the picker is picking his or her own nose.3Note, for example, that eructation is not seen as something impolite in some parts of the world.4See, for example, Chittaranjan A. et al. in J. Clin. Psychiatry 2001, issue 62, page 426. Following the publication of this article, Chittaranjan and co-workers received an IgNobel prize.5That is, the restroom if the child is old enough, or with some parent's aid if the child is younger.6In some cases it is advisable to suck or to wipe the snot out before it dries to become a pickable booger.7The child learns that nose-picking does not serve efficiently to irritate parents.8Regardless of this, the psychological pattern (ie the desire to irritate parents) might still be an unsolved problem.9More serious problems associated with nose-picking, like rhinotillexomania or frequent nose bleeding, should be discussed with a physician.

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