Noses run for all sorts of reasons, including infections, allergies, and irritants. The medical term for a runny or stuffy nose is rhinitis. It’s broadly defined as a combination of symptoms including runny nose, sneezing, congestion, nasal itch, and postnasal drip.
Gustatory rhinitis is the medical term for a food-associated runny nose. Certain foods, especially hot and spicy foods, are known triggers.
Other symptoms that might accompany a runny nose after eating include:
- congestion, stuffiness
- clear discharge
- postnasal drip (phlegm in the throat)
- sore throat
- itchy nose
Allergic rhinitis is the most common form of rhinitis. Many people experience runny noses from allergens in the air, like pollen, mold, dust, and ragweed. These types of allergies are often seasonal. Symptoms may come and go, but are generally worse during certain times of the year.
Many people have an allergic response to cats and dogs. During such an allergic response, the body’s immune system reacts to a substance you have inhaled, causing symptoms like congestion and runny nose.
It’s also possible that a food allergy is the cause of your runny nose. The symptoms of food allergies can range from mild to severe, but typically involve more than nasal congestion. Symptoms often include:
- shortness of breath
- trouble swallowing
- swelling of the tongue
Common food allergies and intolerances include:
Nonallergic rhinitis (NAR) is the primary cause of food-related runny nose. This type of runny nose doesn’t involve an immune system response, but is instead triggered by some sort of irritant. NAR is not as widely understood as allergic rhinitis, so it’s often misdiagnosed.
NAR is a diagnosis of exclusion, which means that if doctors can’t find another reason for your runny nose, they may diagnose you with NAR. Common nonallergenic triggers of runny nose include:
- irritating smells
- certain foods
- weather changes
- cigarette smoke
There are several different types of nonallergic rhinitis, most of which have symptoms resembling seasonal allergies, except with less itchiness.
Gustatory rhinitis is the subtype of nonallergic rhinitis that involves runny nose and or postnasal drip after eating. Gustatory rhinitis is usually triggered by spicy foods. In the past, studies such as one published in 1989 in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, have shown that spicy foods stimulate mucus production in people with gustatory rhinitis.
Gustatory rhinitis is more common among older adults. It often overlaps with another nonallergic rhinitis subtype known as senile rhinitis. Both gustatory and senile rhinitis involve excessive, watery nasal discharge.
Spicy foods that may trigger runny nose include:
- hot peppers
- hot sauce
- chili powder
- other natural spices
Vasomotor rhinitis (VMR) presents as a runny nose or congestion. Other symptoms include:
- postnasal drip
- facial pressure
These symptoms can be constant or intermittent. VMR may be triggered by commonplace irritants that don’t bother most people, such as:
- perfumes and other strong odors
- cold weather
- the smell of paint
- pressure changes in the air
- menstrual-related hormonal changes
- bright lights
- emotional stress
Possible risk factors for vasomotor rhinitis include past nasal trauma (broken or injured nose) or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
Mixed rhinitis is when someone has both allergic and nonallergic rhinitis. It’s not uncommon for someone to experience year-round nasal symptoms, while also experiencing a worsening of symptoms during allergy season.
Similarly, you may experience chronic nasal congestion, but your symptoms expand to include itchiness and watery eyes in the presence of cats.
Most people accept runny noses as a part of life. It isn’t a serious condition, but sometimes the symptoms of nasal congestion can become so severe that they interfere with your quality of life. At that point, it’s a good idea to consult your doctor.
There are a wide variety of conditions that can cause nasal discharge, so you and your doctor will work together to investigate possible causes. Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and any history of allergies. Possible diagnostic tests include:
- skin prick test, to check for allergies
- anterior rhinoscopy, to check for infections
- nasal endoscopy, to check for chronic damage
If your doctor excludes all other causes for your runny nose, they’ll make a diagnosis of nonallergic rhinitis.
The best method for treating your runny nose will depend on the cause. Most symptoms can be alleviated by avoiding triggers and using over-the-counter medications.
If the cause is food allergies
Food allergies can be tricky and can develop later in life. Even if your allergic symptoms have been mild in the past, they can become severe, even life-threatening. If you have a food allergy, you should abstain from that food entirely.
If the cause is allergic rhinitis
Allergic rhinitis can be treated with many over-the-counter allergy medications, including:
- antihistamines, like Benadryl
- cetirizine (Zyrtec)
- loratadine (Claritin)
- fexofenadine (Allegra)
If the cause is mixed rhinitis
Allergic and nonallergic (mixed) rhinitis can be treated with medications that target inflammation and congestion, including:
- oral decongestants (pseudoephedrine, Sudafed, phenylephrine)
- nasal decongestants (Afrin)
- corticosteroid nasal sprays (Flonase, Nasonex, Rhinocort)
- capsaicin nasal spray
- topical anticholinergic agents, such as atropine
- anticholinergic nasal spray (Adrovent)
The symptoms of nonallergic rhinitis, the most common cause of food-related runny nose, can be prevented with a few lifestyle changes, such as:
- avoiding your personal triggers
- quitting smoking and avoiding secondhand smoke
- avoiding occupational triggers (painting, construction) or wearing a mask while working
- using fragrance-free soaps, laundry detergents, moisturizers, and hair products
- avoiding spicy foods
Complications from a runny nose are rarely dangerous, but they can be bothersome. Possible complications of chronic congestion include:
- nasal polyps, harmless growths in the lining of your nose or sinuses
- sinusitis, an infection or inflammation of the membrane lining the sinuses
- middle ear infections, caused by increased fluid and congestion
- reduced quality of life, trouble socializing, working, exercising, or sleeping
If you need immediate relief from a runny nose, your best bet is to use a decongestant. But be sure to talk to your doctor about possible drug interactions.
In the long term, your runny nose treatment will depend on what’s causing it. It might take a few weeks of trial and error for you to find an allergy medication that works for you. It may also take time to pinpoint a specific irritant that’s triggering your symptoms, especially if it’s a common food flavoring, like garlic.