Why Does it Sometimes Sound Like a Foghorn When I Blow My Nose, But a Delicate Whisper Other Times?

Photo: Getty Images/ Oscar Wong
You feel a bit of a nasal drip about to hit your lip. What you really need to do is grab a tissue and clear the airway, but that would mean unleashing that sound you make in public. The snorty, blowing raspberries-like explosion that has you channeling your hankie-carrying grandfather. Because, when it comes to nose-blowing sounds, you never know what you're going to get.

Whether a foghorn or a sweet whisper, it's true that your nose-blowing sounds can vary, and even startle some people, but there’s no need to stress. “Sounds are just manifestations of airflow, like how you can whistle in different tones,” says Rakesh (Rick) Chandra, MD, MMHC, an ENT and professor and division chief for rhinology and skull base surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee.

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Why can nose-blowing sounds differ so wildly?

Here’s a quick lesson in anatomy: “The air passages anatomically on the inside of the nose are not just simple hollow tubes. There are a lot of ridges and curves that line the walls of the air passages on each side. Particles of air get trapped in the thin layer of mucus and the nose filters them out, so they don’t get into the lungs.”

That said, the term congestion can be confusing when it comes to nasal ailments. “Patients think ‘congestion’ is a mucus build-up, so I try to avoid the term because it’s an imprecise term open to interpretation,” Dr. Chandra says. “To a doctor, it means swelling. To a patient, it means something is inside the nose—an obstruction—when it’s actually swollen membranes.”

So, when you have a cold or are exposed to allergens, those nasal membranes swell, narrowing the passages in certain areas. Then when air flows through, the sound can change. Think of it like a musical instrument, such as a trumpet or a saxophone—each is shaped differently and sounds distinct, says Dr. Chandra.

“Another way to look at it is as an old-school Coke bottle [with the] bottom [cut] off. It bottlenecks and has wider areas; the nasal passage is a lot more like that than a hollow toilet paper roll. Swelling will change the residence of airflow through the circuit. If you use less force, you can blow a more delicate sound, and the same with breathing in,” he says.

The good news? As blaring as some nose noises can be, the average person won’t hurt themselves by blowing their nose. “If you blow too forcefully you can expand your ears the same way you pop them on a plane and that’s common and won’t cause harm," says Dr. Chandra. "You can blow air out of your tear ducts if you try hard enough.”

Is there a right and wrong way to blow your nose?

There is really no right way to blow your nose according to Dr. Chandra. “If you really feel like one side is blocked, you’re having a hard time clearing it and you hear rattling, it’s helpful to plug the other side while you blow. The force is now concentrated in one nostril instead of being shared between the two.”

When it comes to what not to do, there are a few things to keep in mind. For instance, if you’re repeatedly blowing your nose and nothing is coming out, the answer is not to keep blowing more, Dr. Chandra says. Why? You can give yourself a headache and a nosebleed.

“People think they have something in there that they can expel, and they blow harder causing unnecessary discomfort, when what is there may just be swollen surface lining. If after a few tries, assume it’s just swollen tissue in your nose rather than collected mucus.”

It's also best to avoid blowing your nose with toilet paper for a couple of reasons. “It is engineered differently than tissue. Toilet paper is made to disintegrate. Those fibers come off the toilet paper, and when you put the toilet paper near your nose, you end up inhaling that,” says Dr. Chandra. “And think of what people touch when they touch toilet paper. You can transfer the bacteria to the nose and cause an infection.”

Are there better ways to unclog a stuffy nose?

If you experience temporary tissue swelling you can use over-the-counter decongestants, Dr. Chandra says. “If you have a cold and use them for three days at a time it is safe. When you use them longer than three days the tissues get some rebound congestion,” Dr. Chandra says. “If your symptoms drag on after a week, you may have a sinus infection and need to get looked at.”

You can also try a neti pot or another nasal irrigating device that many ENTs recommend for flushing out mucus (just make sure to use distilled water), or a sinus drainage massage. Clearing out your nose can be especially helpful for people prone to allergies and inflammatory reactions, Dr. Chandra says. “But not flushing out your nose daily does not mean you’re not clean or sanitary. It’s not like brushing your teeth.”

If you’re looking for a few lifestyle changes that can help keep your nasal passages happy, consider these tips from Dr. Chandra:

  1. Wear adhesive strips. The tape you see athletes wear on their nasal bridges opens nasal passages to help airflow.
  2. Insert nasal cones. You can put these in the nostrils to help you breathe, mainly at night.
  3. Use a humidifier at night. Nose-clogging symptoms can come from an excessively dry nose. A humidifier can provide moisture that stimulates the membranes and helps with the sensation of airflow.
  4. Stay hydrated. Drinking plenty of water can help keep your nasal membranes from drying out.


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