Why Your Child Picks Their Nose and How to Help Them Stop
As every parent knows, children sometimes do the grossest things—including picking their nose. Thankfully, "as kids get older, it becomes less socially appropriate, so if they do it, it tends to be more in private and less frequent," says Leah Alexander, M.D., a pediatrician and consultant for Mom Loves Best.
In the meantime, it's best to stop your kid's nose-picking habit in its tracks. Not only is it embarrassing for parents (especially if it happens in public!), but picking your nose too frequently can have some harmful side effects. These include nasal scratches, nose bleeds, and the spread of germs and infections—yikes!
So why do children pick their nose, and how do you get them to stop? We spoke with experts to understand this common childhood phenomenon.
Why Do Kids Pick Their Nose?
From a young age, kids will pick or poke at their noses for various reasons. Toddlers tend to do this when discovering their bodies, says Jaime Friedman, M.D., a San Diego-based pediatrician and American Academy of Pediatrics spokeswoman. "They find a hole, so they want to explore it."
Older kids may pick their noses to clear out mucus that may be bothering them. "Many kids don't regularly clear their nose by blowing it, so mucus collects and gets dry," says Nina Shapiro, M.D., a pediatric ENT at the UCLA Mattel Children's Hospital and author of The Ultimate Kids' Guide to Being Super Healthy. She explains that the mucus can cause itching and congestion, causing kids to pick it out. And because the irritation from the picking causes more mucus to build up, the cycle just repeats.
Kids may also pick their nose if it's a bit itchy, adds Dr. Shapiro, which tends to happen with seasonal allergies. Sometimes the nose picking can be subconscious, and kids don't even realize they're doing it.
Consequences of Picking Your Nose
In most cases, nose picking is harmless, and it typically bothers the parent more than the child. But this bad habit can also have some harmful consequences. "Sharp fingernails can lead to nasal scratches and even nose bleeds," says Dr. Shapiro. In fact, nosebleeds are most commonly caused by nose picking in kids ages 3 to 10 years old.
Perhaps more concerning, nose picking can introduce germs and bacteria into the body. "Dirty fingers in the nose are a great way for kids to not only pick up germs and get sick, but to also spread germs," says Dr. Friedman. Adds Dr. Shapiro: "Especially as we are seeing more and more respiratory illnesses in kids, including COVID-19, it's a risky endeavor to stick fingers in a nose these days."
In rare cases, there's also a possibility that nose picking can cause an infection. "We all have bacteria that hangs on our hands and the fingers, and a child can introduce that inside the nose and potentially end up with a bacterial infection," says Dr. Alexander.
How to Stop Your Child From Picking Their Nose
Young kids might not realize that nose picking is inappropriate and unsanitary, so parents should be sensitive when helping them nip the habit. They should never embarrass or shame their child.
To minimize picking, explains Dr. Shapiro, parents can teach their kids about nose blowing and general hygiene practices; this education can start as early as age two or three. "Parents can teach kids about handwashing, and that putting unwashed hands in a nose can lead to the spread of infections," she says. "If they must pick their nose, they need to wash their hands before and after." Dr. Shapiro also recommends nasal saline spray or drops for noses that are particularly dry or crusty.
Finally, refrain from saying "don't pick your nose" all the time, which can motivate kids to do it more. Instead, Dr. Alexander suggests using positive reinforcement to help your kid kick the bad habit. "Saying 'good job' when they're not actually picking their nose or rewarding them for using a tissue instead can over time reduce the frequency of it," she says.