Noses run for all sorts of reasons, including infections, allergies, and irritants.
The medical term for a runny or stuffy nose is rhinitis. Rhinitis is broadly defined as a combination of symptoms, including:
- runny nose
- nasal itch
- phlegm in the throat
Gustatory rhinitis is the medical term for a runny nose that’s caused by food. Certain foods, especially hot and spicy ones, are known triggers.
Other symptoms that might accompany a runny nose after eating include:
- congestion or stuffiness
- clear discharge
- phlegm in the throat, which is known as postnasal drip
- sore throat
- itchy nose
Different types of rhinitis are associated with different causes.
Allergic rhinitis is the most common form of rhinitis. Many people experience runny noses from allergens in the air, such as:
These types of allergies are often seasonal. Symptoms may come and go, but they’re 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’ve inhaled, causing symptoms such as congestion and a 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 they typically involve more than nasal congestion. Symptoms often include:
Nonallergic rhinitis (NAR)
Nonallergic rhinitis (NAR) is the primary cause of a food-related runny nose. This type of runny nose doesn’t involve an immune system response, but instead, it’s triggered by some sort of irritant.
NAR isn’t as widely understood as allergic rhinitis, so it’s often misdiagnosed.
NAR is a diagnosis of exclusion, which means that if your doctor 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 type of nonallergic rhinitis that involves a runny nose or postnasal drip after eating. Spicy foods usually trigger gustatory rhinitis.
Older studies, such as a 1989 one published 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 senile rhinitis, another type of nonallergic 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)
The term vasomotor refers to activity related to blood vessel constriction or dilatation. 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
- menstruation-related hormonal changes
- bright lights
- emotional stress
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.
A runny nose 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 talk with 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. Avoiding triggers and using over-the-counter (OTC) medications can help alleviate most symptoms.
If the cause is allergic rhinitis
Allergic rhinitis can be treated with many OTC allergy medications and remedies, including:
- antihistamines, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl), cetirizine (Zyrtec), loratadine (Claritin), and fexofenadine (Allegra)
If the cause is a food allergy
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, try to avoid that food entirely.
If the cause is mixed rhinitis
Mixed rhinitis can be treated with medications that target inflammation and congestion, including:
- oral decongestants, such as pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) and phenylephrine (Sudafed PE)
- nasal decongestants, such as oxymetazoline hydrochloride (Afrin)
- corticosteroid nasal sprays, such as fluticasone (Flonase), mometasone (Nasonex), and budesonide (Rhinocort)
- capsaicin nasal spray
- topical anticholinergic agents, such as atropine (Atropen)
- anticholinergic nasal sprays, such as ipratropium (Atrovent)
People who only have allergic rhinitis can also use these medications.
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, if you smoke, and avoiding secondhand smoke
- avoiding occupational triggers (such as painting and 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. Below are some possible complications of chronic congestion:
- Nasal polyps. These are harmless growths in the lining of your nose or sinuses.
- Sinusitis. Sinusitis is an infection or inflammation of the membrane lining the sinuses.
- Middle ear infections. Middle ear infections are caused by increased fluid and congestion.
- Reduced quality of life. You may have trouble socializing, working, exercising, or sleeping.
Otherwise, your treatment for a runny nose will depend on what’s causing it.
If you need long-term relief, 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, such as garlic.