The Human Body

Nasal Passages

The flow of air from outside of the body to the lungs begins with the nose, which is divided into the left and right nasal passages. The nasal passages are lined with a membrane composed primarily of one layer of flat, closely packed cells called epithelial cells. Each epithelial cell is densely fringed with thousands of microscopic cilia, fingerlike extensions of the cells. Interspersed among the epithelial cells are goblet cells, specialized cells that produce mucus, a sticky, thick, moist fluid that coats the epithelial cells and the cilia. Numerous tiny blood vessels called capillaries lie just under the mucous membrane, near the surface of the nasal passages. While transporting air to the pharynx, the nasal passages play two critical roles: they filter the air to remove potentially disease-causing particles; and they moisten and warm the air to protect the structures in the respiratory system.

Filtering prevents airborne bacteria, viruses, other potentially disease-causing substances from entering the lungs, where they may cause infection. Filtering also eliminates smog and dust particles, which may clog the narrow air passages in the smallest bronchioles. Coarse hairs found just inside the nostrils of the nose trap airborne particles as they are inhaled. The particles drop down onto the mucous membrane lining the nasal passages. The cilia embedded in the mucous membrane wave constantly, creating a current of mucus that propels the particles out of the nose or downward to the pharynx. In the pharynx, the mucus is swallowed and passed to the stomach, where the particles are destroyed by stomach acid. If more particles are in the nasal passages than the cilia can handle, the particles build up on the mucus and irritate the membrane beneath it. This irritation triggers a reflex that produces a sneeze to get rid of the polluted air.

The nasal passages also moisten and warm air to prevent it from damaging the delicate membranes of the lung. The mucous membranes of the nasal passages release water vapor, which moistens the air as it passes over the membranes. As air moves over the extensive capillaries in the nasal passages, it is warmed by the blood in the capillaries. If the nose is blocked or “stuffy” due to a cold or allergies, a person is forced to breath through the mouth. This can be potentially harmful to the respiratory system membranes, since the mouth does not filter, warm, or moisten air.

In addition to their role in the respiratory system, the nasal passages house cells called olfactory receptors, which are involved in the sense of smell. When chemicals enter the nasal passages, they contact the olfactory receptors. This triggers the receptors to send a signal to the brain, which creates the perception of smell.