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Nose-Picking: Why Kids Do It and How to Stop It

by Vannessa Rhoades 09 Jan 2023
Nose-Picking: Why Kids Do It and How to Stop It

Children engage in some pretty disgusting behavior at times, including picking their noses and sometimes even eating what they pull out. The social stigma of being caught with a finger up one’s nose is the most problematic aspect of nose picking according to some experts, but there are health consequences as well. Nose picking can spread the bacteria responsible for pneumonia, and aggressive picking can cause nasal bleeding and sores. It’s a habit that can become even harder to kick as your child gets older. Let’s examine why kids pick their noses and how to stop the nose-picking habit.

Why Children Pick Their Noses

Nose-picking is not an unusual habit for most preschoolers. They may do it for any number of reasons, including stress, boredom, curiosity, or it may simply be a subconscious nervous habit. Sometimes it’s to relieve feelings of discomfort within the nasal passage. Regardless of the reason, it’s a habit that needs to be broken.

The Danger of Nose Picking

Other than being gross and aggravating to caregivers, nose-picking doesn’t typically cause any major damage. That said, it can a few problems. The skin inside the nasal passage is delicate and easy to tear. Sharp fingernails may trigger a nosebleed. Aggressive picking can cause even more damage. In fact, one study demonstrated that individuals who suffer from compulsive nose-picking (rhinotillexomania) experience excessive swelling and inflammation of nasal tissue, eventually leading to a narrowing of the nostrils. Other possible risks include sores inside the nose, illness, and infection. 

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How to Stop Nose Picking in a Child

As with any undesirable habit, the key to breaking it is consistency and positive reinforcement. The moment you observe your little one starting to pick their nose, immediately say something, give them a tissue, and gently remind them not to do it. Avoid scolding them. Be prepared to repeat this routine over and over again. 

If your child has only recently begun picking their nose, they could have a new issue bothering them. Nasal dryness, excess mucus, an infection, or allergies can make a child uncomfortable and trigger nose-picking. Consult your pediatrician if you feel your child may need medical intervention to ease their discomfort. Otherwise, here are a few tips on how to stop the nose-picking habit.

Talk about germs.

Talk to your children about the hygiene aspects of nose-picking. Explain that not only is it impolite, but it can also cause an infection inside their nose and spread germs that make them or others ill. Many kids aren’t even aware they’re picking. It simply becomes a thoughtless habit. Bring it to your child’s attention consistently every time you observe the behavior and have them go wash their hands afterward.

Keep their hands busy.

Occupied hands and fingers are less likely to end up in their nose. If they tend to pick their nose when they’re bored or passively watching television, redirect them to another activity. Encourage them to color a picture or give them a fidget toy to keep their hands busy.

Cover their hands.

When you’re at home, try putting gloves or mittens on your child’s hands to discourage them from picking.  Adhesive bandages around their fingertips may also help, especially if the picking is subconscious. When you’re in public, It helps to have a “code word” with your child that you can use to discretely and gently remind them to stop picking. *Never place hot sauce, chili powder, or any other irritants on your little one’s fingers to deter nose-picking. This can cause painful irritation inside the nose.

Ignore it.

If you’ve tried everything else, you may just need to let it go for a while. Try to mitigate picking by keeping your child’s nails trimmed and filed and making them wash their hands often.

Seek professional help.

Nose-picking is rarely a serious issue. However, if it has a sudden onset or is happening in conjunction with other unusual behaviors (sudden bedwetting, for example), something else may be going on. If you feel your child is having difficulties beyond normal preschool nose-picking, it may be time to check in with their pediatrician.

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Tips for How to Relieve Nasal Issues

If nose-picking is the result of allergies, irritation, or sinus issues, there are a number of things you can do to help relieve their symptoms.

Moisturize the nasal passages.

Irritants in the air or a lack of humidity can irritate the delicate linings of the nasal passage. Use saline drops or saline spray to moisturize the nasal tissues. Running a humidifier in their room at night may also help.

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Keep them hydrated.

Drinking lots of water will also help moisturize your child’s nasal passages. It also helps the cilia (tiny hairs inside the nose that move mucous and trapped particles out of the nose) do a better job of moving germs out of the body.

Try nasal irrigation.

Nasal irrigation with a saline nasal wash helps flush pollen, dust, and other debris from open spaces behind the nose. It also helps remove excess mucus (snot) and adds moisture. Use a device such as a neti pot, squeeze bottle, or rubber nasal bulb at your drug store. Buy saline solution made specifically for nasal rinses or make your own rinse by mixing a teaspoon of canning or pickling salt (no iodine), a pinch of baking soda, and 2 cups of warm distilled, filtered, or boiled water.

Manage allergy problems.

If your child is picking their nose because they’re sensitive to their environment, you may need to take steps to address the underlying allergy. Allergy management may include things like using a medication, avoiding specific triggers, bathing after being outdoors, or using hypoallergenic bedding. Consult your pediatrician to come up with a plan that works well for your child’s specific needs.

The Bottom Line

In spite of the potential for germ spreading and the undesirable social stigma, nose-picking is a common habit for many people, particularly young children. If your little one has begun picking their nose, consistently and gently remind them that it’s not polite and that they need to use a tissue. Take time to also teach them how to blow their nose effectively. This will help them end the behavior before making a habit of it. If you’re having trouble or if the picking leads to frequent nosebleeds, talk to your child’s healthcare provider. They can evaluate your little one and make further recommendations on how to stop the behavior.

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