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What are Olfactory Cilia?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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“Olfactory cilia” is a fancy way of saying “nose hairs,” but is important to distinguish between the macroscopic nose hairs near the opening of the nostrils, and the microscopic hairs in the olfactory epithelium, the part of the nose which traps smells and communicates them to the brain. The microscopic olfactory cilia play a very important role in the perception of smell, and they perform several other functions for the nose as well.

Properly speaking, the visible nose hair is just hair, not cilia. Cilia are specialized biological structures which closely resemble hair, but on a much smaller scale. The nose hair near the front of the nose helps to trap particulate matter, preventing harmful materials from entering the nasal passages and defending the body from potential sources of infection. Because of this important function, many doctors do not recommend trimming nose hair, no matter how aesthetically displeasing it may be.

The olfactory cilia inside the nose line the mucus membranes of the nose, and unlike most other cilia in the body, they are non-motile, remaining stationary in the nose rather than wiggling around in the mucus like the cilia which line the trachea and intestines do. As smells enter the nose, they dissolve in the mucus and come into contact with the olfactory cilia. The cilia in turn transmit the smell to the olfactory nerve, which passes the information on to the brain. This process can be lightning-fast, as anyone who has ever walked past a sewage treatment plant can tell you.

Many people are aware that dogs and some other animals have a much better sense of smell than humans. This is because the interiors of their noses have a much higher surface area, providing more of a space for smells to come into contact with the cilia and therefore creating a larger filter for incoming smells. Because humans have shortened noses and flat faces, rather than elongated snouts, they don't have the room for the extensive sensory membranes common to many animals. Intriguingly, many domesticated animals have shorter snouts than their wild relatives, suggesting that sense of smell may be one of the first senses to decrease with domestication.

There are cases in which olfactory cilia can be damaged or absent, impeding sense of smell and creating a condition called anosmia. While anosmia may sound like a minor inconvenience in humans, it can actually be quite dangerous, as the sense of smell is used to determine when food is going bad, whether gas leaks are present in an area, and to check for other signs of potential danger.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By wavy58 — On Jun 08, 2012

I have always heard that a dog’s olfactory tract is much more sensitive than a human’s, but I didn’t know it was because they had more room for cilia in there. I’m actually glad that we aren’t made like dogs, because having that much sensitivity to smells could be unbearable.

I often wonder how my dog stands to live outside. When skunks come by at night and spray their scent, how can his nose tolerate that strong odor? I think I would dig a hole and bury my nose in the ground to get away from it!

In other ways, it’s great that they have this gift, because they can track people who are missing or find their way home after wandering off in the woods. Still, I think I am happy with my mediocre sense of smell.

By Perdido — On Jun 08, 2012

@kylee07drg - I also thought we had regular nose hairs all the way through our noses. I did not know until reading this article that the cilia were any different than the hairs I could see.

I have always trimmed my nose hair, and I think that most people do this. I never once thought about how I might be allowing more bad things to enter my sinuses by doing this.

Maybe that’s why I have such trouble with allergies. Perhaps if I left my nose hair alone and let it grow, it would do a better job of protecting me from things that make me sneeze and become congested.

By kylee07drg — On Jun 07, 2012

I had always pictured the cilia in my nose waving back and forth. I’m surprised to learn that they stand still. This destroys a longstanding mental image I have had of nose hair deep inside the nasal passages.

I thought that the cilia all throughout the nose had to trap things like dust. Since they are so tiny, I understand why they would not have this function.

It’s neat that they serve as transmitters of smell. They are like little transmitter towers sending signals of smell to the brain.

By lighth0se33 — On Jun 06, 2012

I can’t imagine life without a sense of smell. I’ve gone through periods where I couldn’t smell anything, but that was just because I had a cold or a sinus infection. My olfactory sensitivity always returned once the illness subsided.

I was miserable while unable to smell, because this affected my sense of taste. I couldn’t enjoy even the most spicy and flavorful foods, because to me, they had no flavor.

I wasn’t aware that my cilia were the cause of this, but I knew that something was either blocked off or malfunctioning inside my nose. I got so happy when I woke up one morning and could actually smell coffee, because I knew I would be able to taste food again.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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