PhotoThe world has lots of problems -- climate change, deadly viruses, struggling economies and general weirdness. But it's hard to think of anything that affects as many people as the plain old runny nose.

Not the common cold, mind you. Just the runny nose. Millions and millions of us have it, sometimes because of allergies or an infection. But other times, our nose drips for no particular reason at all.

You can call it the sniffles or use the medical term, non-allergic rhinitis. It doesn't matter what you call it. It's about as annoying as anything and because it's relatively harmless, you get no sympathy from anybody.

A clue

But now researchers at the University of Colorado School of Medicine say they have figured out what may be going on, which could be the first step in doing something about it.

Thomas Finger, PhD, and his team, supported by a National Institutes of Health grant and working with a Danish colleague, report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they found cells lining the noses of mice that may be key.

These cells – called solitary chemosensory cells (SCCs) -- detect potential irritants in the air and pass along the alert to pain-sensing nerve terminals.

The nerves then release a substance that triggers the body's defenses, called an inflammatory response. The result -- among other things, a runny nose and difficulty breathing.

"Understanding how this works can help researchers try to figure out how to prevent this response," Finger says. "What if we could deaden the pathway that the body takes to fight off an attack that, in this case, is not really threatening?"

It's not yet certain that the process is identical in humans, Finger says. But if it is, and if some people are responding to substances or smells that appear to be a threat but actually are benign, then additional research could find a way to help millions of people to, literally, breathe easier.

Until then, keep that Kleenex box close by.

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