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Mucus is a substance in the human body that people complain about but take for granted, not knowing the benefits. Mucus lines the respiratory tract and lays down a blanket of protection. The process starts in your nose and nostrils and ends with your alveolus, which are little sacs in the lungs which expand and contract, moving air around allowing us to breathe. There are also mucus glands in the digestive tract.
Mucus is a clear, watery, viscous solution that is created and secreted from the mucus membranes. It contains important substances including mucin, which is a mucopolysaccharide, a big fancy word that means that it has protein and carbohydrates in it. Mucus also contains salt and water and blood byproducts, including antibiotics which help protect us. There are millions of tiny glands producing this substance lining the respiratory and GI tracts.
I would dare say that there is not a day that does not go by that someone comes into my office complaining about too much mucus. Mucus is very important. It is our first level of the body’s defense. It helps fight bacteria and pollutants and traps foreign bodies as they enter the body and washes them away.
Mucus has multiple jobs including protection, lubrication, humidification, waterproofing and insulation. Just the fact that it traps little tiny microorganisms from entering the lining of the respiratory tract is very important. It acts like fly paper and once these microorganisms are trapped they are swept away by a support system of microcilia, which are these tiny hairs attached to the lining of the respiratory tract. The mucus is moved away like a conveyor belt from the nostril to the throat then swallowed, and in the lower respiratory tract there is a reverse upstream motion, so to speak, sweeping the mucus from the lungs into the throat to be swallowed and excreted through the stomach and the gastrointestinal tract.
Mucus is affected by various things, including weather changes, dry climates, subzero temperatures. It keeps the body’s relative humidity at 75 percent to 80 percent. We produce about 2 quarts a day and also evaporate about 1 quart of water per day.
When people have trouble with mucus, it is most commonly as a result of an infection, either bacterial or viral, which causes the tiny hairs to be impaired and not able to sweep the mucus away. This leads to congestion due to mucus standing still and not being swept away as it normally is. Drying effects of aging and medications can also cause mucus to accumulate. Think of mucus being the motor oil of the body — a very important substance to have good quality of life.
Simple measures to insure good health and normal mucus production and streaming into the digestive tract should include adequate hydration. Drinking lots of water, and supplementing with saline solution or saline sprays in the nose are very helpful, as well as avoiding situations that are dry and dusty and dirty. There are products available to dry up mucus, which can be counterproductive and there are also products that stimulate mucus — the most common one is guaifenesin, which has been around for 50-plus years.
So, as you can see, mucus is a very important product that we cannot live without. There are some temporary situations where it does seem to be annoying, but thankfully we have this important product to make us healthy and disease free, as it acts as our first line of defense.
Denis Grillo, D.O., FOCOO, is an ear, nose and throat specialist in Crystal River. Call him at 352-795-0011 or visit CrystalCommunityENT.com.