Why Spicy Foods Cause Runny Noses

Primary Culprit in Causing Runny Noses

Why Spicy Foods Cause Runny Noses
Photo by Elle Hughes on Unsplash

It's really nothing to worry about, and it is not a food allergy, although it seems like one. Find out why this happens and what you can do to stop it.

Certain foods, particularly hot and spicy foods, can cause runny noses (or rhinorrhoea) in some people. This condition is due to a non-allergic type of rhinitis (vasomotor rhinitis) called gustatory rhinitis. There are food allergies that cause runny noses among other symptoms. But, gustatory rhinitis is said to be non-allergic because it normally just causes runny noses in the absence of other symptoms like hives, nausea and difficulties with breathing.

Spicy foods are the primary culprit in causing runny noses. They contain an ingredient called capsaicin. It is this ingredient that is responsible for causing runny noses. Gustatory rhinitis is said to be vaguely mediated, involving a neurogenic reflex via the parasympathetic nerve fibres.

Capsaicin excites nerve fibres in the tongue, and it has a similar effect in the nose. Capsaicin is capable of activating sensory C-fibres in the sinus, specifically the TRPV1 and VR1 receptors on these fibres. This leads to a parasympathetic reflex response, involving a release of acetylcholine, causing increased mucus production in the serous and seromucous glands of the nasal mucosa and consequently, increased nasal secretions.

Many non-infectious and non-allergic types of rhinitis produce nasal congestion and/or increased nasal secretions after the activation of C-fibres by a certain stimulus.

Types of Food That Cause Gustatory Rhinitis

Almost any type of food can cause runny noses, but most commonly, people experience gustatory rhinitis after ingesting spicy foods. Examples of spicy foods that can cause runny noses to include chili peppers, horseradish and black pepper.

People can experience gustatory rhinitis after ingesting other foods and drinks that they may be sensitive to. Examples may include alcohol, mustard and vinegar.

Who Gets Gustatory Rhinitis

Gustatory rhinitis is more common in adults, and it can also occur in children. It is said to be more common in the elderly. Individuals with allergic rhinitis and those who smoke excessively have also been implicated in being more prone to getting gustatory rhinitis.

Why people have a hyperactive reaction to certain foods and gustatory rhinitis in the first place is unknown.

Symptoms of Gustatory Rhinitis

A runny nose is an obvious symptom almost exclusively experienced in people with gustatory rhinitis. It usually happens immediately after the triggering food has been ingested, or can happen within a few hours of ingestion. Nasal secretions tend to be watery and thin. Nasal congestion can also be a symptom. There may be some sneezing and watery eyes experienced, but other that, there are normally no other symptoms.

The symptoms should disappear within minutes of stopping consumption of the food that triggered the runny nose in the first place, but can last for a little longer after ingesting the food. Of course, it depends on the individual what types of symptoms they experience and when it occurs.

Treatment of Gustatory Rhinitis

Probably the most obvious step to take to avoid the symptoms of gustatory rhinitis is, to quite simply, avoid the triggering foods. Perhaps consuming foods that are less spicy can be helpful too.

Another option to prevent the symptoms of gustatory rhinitis is to use an ipratropium bromide (Atrovent) nasal spray. This is an anti-cholinergic, which means that it blocks actions of the parasympathetic nervous system, such as the release of acetylcholine that results in nasal mucus production. Ipratropium bromide is effective at decreasing nasal secretions (rhinorrhea) in non-allergic rhinitis. It does this without impairing normal nasal functions including olfaction or mucociliary clearance. It should be applied shortly before exposure to the stimulus, that is, before consuming the triggering food. Side effects of this drug may include nosebleeds, dryness of the nose and mouth, sore throat, variations in taste and headaches.

But side effects can be minimised by taking appropriate doses as recommended by a doctor.

Taking antihistamines is not really an option as this is taken for allergic rhinitis. Gustatory rhinitis is not caused by an allergy, but by a hyper neurogenic reflex mechanism.

Another form of treatment that is not currently available in the market, but is being experimented with as a potential therapeutic strategy is capsaicin therapy. It has been found that symptoms of non-allergic rhinitis can be controlled for up to one year by applying capsaicin to the nasal mucosa. It is believed that repeated stimulation of sensory C-fibres causes desensitization of these nerve fibres, hence preventing symptoms.

But what is important to consider is that getting runny noses after ingesting spicy foods or other foods isn’t something that people should be anxious about. After all, people might not want to give up these foods, and tissues can always do the trick.

Interestingly, some people capitalize on the fact that spicy foods can cause increased nasal secretions. When they have a congested nose from a cold, they consume spicy foods to clear their nose as a natural remedy. What is more interesting is that the use of spicy foods as a nasal decongestant can be traced back to the Aztecs.

However, medical professionals express that while capsaicin tends to cause increased nasal secretions, it may cause further nasal congestion too.

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Amani Mtimba
A freelance journalist and writer
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