Nose picking: Whether it's bad and how to stop it

Nose picking is a fact of life, but the habit can spread germs and cause nosebleeds and other health issues.

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Children may pick their nose because it has something in it that doesn't feel right. In other cases, nose picking might provide entertainment or stimulation during moments of boredom – and kids may not be fully aware they're doing it.

Although some people consider it a "nervous habit" – a category that includes thumb sucking, nail biting, hair twisting, and tooth grinding – nose picking isn't necessarily a sign that your child is overly anxious.

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Allergies may contribute to nose picking in children: The heavy flow of mucus and its subsequent crusting give them a "something's up there" feeling that makes it difficult to leave their nose alone.

Certain environmental conditions also make kids more likely to pick; if your heating or air-conditioning system is drying out your child's nasal passages, for instance, they may be more likely to have a nose-picking problem.

Is nose picking bad?

Nose picking might seem like a harmless (if embarrassing) habit, but there are actually quite a few legitimate health downsides to the practice.

First off, nose picking exposes (and spreads) germs. Your nose makes mucus to hydrate your nasal passages and trap viruses, pollen, and other harmful irritants before they can get into your body. Boogers are essentially dried-out mucus, which are full of captured germs. Picking them out can get germs stuck under the fingernails and make it easier to spread those germs to others.

Picking your nose, even with clean fingers, can also damage the nose itself. The delicate skin inside the nasal cavity is easily scratched, which can cause tiny scrapes and scabs that can get infected. Nose picking is also a major cause of nosebleeds, especially in younger kids.

Surprisingly, eating boogers (a common after-effect of picking) isn't as bad as you'd think. Humans already eat a quart of mucus per day by swallowing snot; eating a few spare boogers here and there isn't generally believed to be harmful. (And apparently, their salty taste is catnip to kids!)

How to stop nose picking

Address allergies. If your child has allergies, you'll usually notice other signs, too: red and itchy eyes, itchy skin, and sneezing are among the signs. The most common allergens affecting children are dust mites, animal dander, pollen, and mold.

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Teach your child to use a handkerchief or tissue. Encourage your kid to blow their nose when they feel something up there and then wipe out their nostrils with a hankie or tissue in private. This solves the germ problem and prevents awkward social situations.

Encourage hand-washing. Most kids aren't great at washing their hands, but explain to them when it's important (after using the bathroom and before eating, for instance) and why. Even if you can't keep your child from picking their nose, encouraging them to keep their hands clean can help stop the spread of germs.

Use positive reinforcement. Be sure to praise your child when they use a tissue instead of picking. You can track days with no picking with a star chart or other system, and offer small prizes or treats for consistently avoiding nose picking.

Keep their hands busy. Sometimes a kid who keeps picking their nose just needs something to do with their hands. Redirect younger kids mid-pick by giving them something to hold or play with, like a cup or toy.

Try giving an older kid an activity to keep their hands busy, like making craft projects (glue, beads, feathers, decorative paper scraps, markers, construction paper, and glitter are all excellent distractions), solving jigsaw puzzles, using a fidget toy, sculpting with clay, and putting together simple models or building sets. Playing outside can also help keep their mind off picking.

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Keep them hydrated. Offer your child lots of fluids during the day, or try a humidifier in their bedroom at night. If they'll stand for it, a saline nasal spray (not a decongestant one, which is medicated and can only be used for short periods of time) may also help. This can also help prevent nosebleeds.

Get silly. Tell them that if they must use their finger, it's best done in private. This may lead to some jokes or giggles about grossing people out with flagrant public nose picking. So much the better – if your child can laugh about it with you, they'll have an easier time remembering what to do (and not to do) around other people.

You can also come up with a silly code word – like "sparkle unicorn" or "rainbow dinosaur" – to use when you notice your child picking. You can say the code word to remind your kiddo to stop picking their nose without scolding or nagging them.

Check things out. If your child's exploring their nose so intensely that they're drawing blood, or if the habit seems to be one of a constellation of nervous behaviors (they're still sucking their thumb, picking their nose until it bleeds, and having trouble sleeping, for example), talk to your pediatrician or a children's therapist. It could be a sign of anxiety or other emotional problem your child needs help with.

Ignore it. If you've done all of the above and your child still picks their nose occasionally, your best bet is to keep their fingernails short and snag-free. This will help prevent nosebleeds, and clean fingernails will help keep your child from getting sick.

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While you can remind your child that nose picking is unhealthy and impolite, nagging or punishing them when they pick their nose won't help. (And the more you call attention to it, the more they'll want to do it.) Like all childhood habits, it will eventually pass.

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American Academy of Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery Foundation. 2020. Plain Language Summary: Nosebleed (Epistaxis). a new window [Accessed March 2023]

American Academy of Pediatrics. 2022. Chronic Nosebleeds in Children: What To Do. a new window [Accessed March 2023]

American Academy of Pediatrics. 2015. Common Childhood Habits. a new window [Accessed March 2023]

American Academy of Pediatrics. 2016. Nose Picking. a new window [Accessed March 2023]

Children's Hospital Los Angeles. Undated. Take the Pick Out of Nose Picking. a new window [Accessed March 2023]

Nemours Foundation. Undated. Your Child's Habits. a new window [Accessed March 2023]

The Ohio State University, Wexner Medical Center. 2017. How harmful is it to pick your nose? a new window [Accessed March 2023]

UnityPoint Health. 2018. Why Boogers are Gross but So Good For Your Health. a new window [Accessed March 2023]

University of Utah Health. 2017. What to Do If My Kid's A Nose Picker. a new window [Accessed March 2023]

Jessie Van Amburg

Jessie Van Amburg is a freelance health writer and editor who specializes in mental and reproductive health. She lives in Beacon, New York, with her husband and three cats.