Illustration: Sam Woolley (GMG)
Am I Gross?Welcome to Am I Gross? A recurring feature in which we tell you if you’re gross. If you’d like to know if something you are doing is gross, email our columnist at AmIGross.Deadspin@gmail.com.  

Dear Leigh, I have sucked snot out of my kids’ noses with my mouth when they were too little to blow it. I spit it out, for the record. Am I gross?

Sincerely,

Mucus Mama

My dearest Mucus Mama, I salute you. Faced with what I presume was a hungry baby, too stuffy to latch, you formed a seal around the facial organ of your child’s discontent and sucked the effluvium right out of their face… and into your mouth. To the readers at home, this may seem disgusting, but oh, my sweet summer children, parenthood is so very full of fluids. When you’ve felt the warm tell of poop leaking through the baby carrier, tasted the cheesy tang of projectile newborn spit-up, what’s a little boogie between friends? Exactly how gross is using your own mouth to blow your baby’s nose?

Let’s start with a little anatomy lesson. Dr. A. Fuller, friend of mine and board certified family physician has generously agreed to answer my questions, despite the nature of the subject matter. It was important to me not to fall in with doctors who are prone to hygienic moralizing. Spare me the cleanliness is next to godliness rhetoric; I want to know if booger sucking is just nasty or actually harmful. Given that Fuller has seen my unwashed self sliming through dive bars all over town, I feel very comfortable that they will give it to me straight when I ask if something is, in fact, gross. Fuck, I even interviewed them for this in a dive bar.

We begin with the basics of how the nose keeps itself clean. “There’s cillia, little hairs inside the nose, and their sole purpose is to trap foreign particles that are inhaled.” Think of this as a first-line defense mechanism against things like pathogens and particulate matter, like viruses and tree pollen. And once trapped, it’s up to the snot to prep unwanted visitors for expulsion. “The sole purpose of mucus is to encapsulate that foreign particle, whatever it is, and get it out of the body.” Bacteria go up the nose, get trapped in mucus, and voilà: now you can dump the whole mess in a tissue.

“You inhale so much nasty stuff all the time, and so when you’re sucking snot out, you’re sucking out encapsulated bacteria and other disgusting things that are encapsulated with snot. It’s not advisable.” So is it gross? “Absolutely.” Then why on earth would anyone snot-suck their spawn?

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Notably, babies cannot blow their noses. Most don’t learn this useful skill until around two years old, though for some it can take longer. A baby who cannot blow their nose won’t latch properly and will have a hard time breathing while they nurse or bottle feed. Medical advances have given us tools for snot sucking, like the bulb syringe and the NoseFrida, but those are not always available. What to do with a sick baby and no suction device? Fuller makes a face. “I mean, it’d still be gross, but necessary at that point.” Fuller mentions that babies with a lot of nasal congestion or RSV (respiratory syncytial virus, a common infection in little ones) often wind up in the hospital with respiratory problems, and that suctioning plays a huge role in their treatment. “If we’re talking about someone off the grid who didn’t have any other methods of nasal suctioning, then yeah, I would promote the old-fashioned way.”

But is it dangerous? Probably not. Even without mouth-to-nose contact, Mom has likely been exposed to whatever germs the baby is incubating in their nares, so she’s not going to significantly increase her risk by making a likely thing certain. So as long as Mom isn’t sick with something the baby hasn’t been exposed to, and doesn’t suck exceptionally hard (that could give baby a nose bleed), it’s probably fine. Additionally, breastfeeding mothers pass antibodies to their baby through breast milk, boosting the baby’s immune system against specific pathogens. “The chances of mom contracting something awful are, admittedly, low. But it’s still gross.”

But of course, gross is relative. “According to our generally accepted values of what is gross, her behavior would be considered gross,” wrote Dr. Robert P. Schleimer of the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University, during our email correspondence. “However, I will point out that most social land mammals have preening behavior that includes significant licking of themselves, their offspring and other members of their herd or tribe.” But licking is more than just behavioral. “The tongue and submucosal glands in the mouth produce large quantities of a number of antimicrobial substances, and it is not unreasonable to expect that licking can place antimicrobials on a site of infection.” So perhaps, despite the inherent squick factor of a mouthful of boogers, there may be some benefit to this method of nose-blowing?

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“It is pure speculation on my part, but your theoretical mother may be reducing the load of bacteria or fungi by removing the snot.” Schleimer is also quick to note that while this may be a positive thing, there are much more socially acceptable ways to remove baby snot, such as suction devices. “She may also be placing some of her saliva in the child’s nose, having a theoretical benefit for the reason we lick skin. I am not aware of any studies of this.”

I am willing to say that, based on my research, sucking snot out of your baby’s nose is kind of gross but ultimately not a big deal. It’s sometimes necessary, and potentially beneficial, though that last bit is mostly speculation. Which leaves me with my final question: What’s it like?

“I felt like I was doing the right thing,” said Amanda Swafford, another dear friend of mine who is wholly inured to my own personal grossness and, as it turns out, has twice sucked snot out of her then-infant’s nose. “I was making him more comfortable.” She tells me it was smooth, with clumps not, chunks. “Congealed suctions.” I asked her what it tasted like, and she denies tasting it, though notes that she might have just blocked it out.

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But did it help? “Oh yeah, it fixed it. Absolutely. This stupid little bulb things, they don’t work for the whole kit-and-kaboodle,” she laughs. “You really gotta power-house that shit out.” She said her baby liked her nose suction more than the nasal aspirators given out in those in post-delivery goodie bags.

“It’s like siphoning your child. As soon as you feel it release, it’s good.”