14 Reasons You Have a Runny Nose

A runny nose (rhinorrhea) can strike any time of year. While a common cold, allergies, and COVID-19 are common culprits, a lot of other things can cause congestion or a runny nose—including spicy food or even hormones.

This article looks at 14 reasons you may have a runny nose, how to deal with it, and when to see a healthcare provider.

The Common Cold

Sick woman laying on sofa holding remote control.
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Also known as: Upper respiratory infection (URI), rhinovirus

The common cold can be caused by over 200 viruses, with rhinovirus being the most common.

When you have a cold, fluids can pass more easily than usual out of your blood vessels and into your nose. The running usually starts within the first two to three days after you pick up the virus.

Mucus usually starts out clear and may turn white, yellow, or even green after a couple of days.

Treatments for a runny nose from the common cold include:

  • Atrovent (intranasal ipratropium) nasal spray
  • Dimetapp Cold & Allergy (brompheniramine)
  • Chlor-Trimeton (chlorpheniramine)
  • Benadryl Allergy (diphenhydramine)

If your runny nose continues for more than 10 days, see a healthcare provider. You may have a bacterial infection that needs to be treated with antibiotics.

COVID-19

A nurse with a mask and face shield swabs a young Black woman's nose to test for COVID-19.

Maskot / Getty Images

A runny nose is one possible symptom of COVID-19. Other symptoms include:

  • Fever or chills
  • Sore throat
  • Nasal congestion
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • Loss of taste and/or smell
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

If you suspect your runny nose and other symptoms are caused by COVID-19, get tested—especially if you're at high risk for severe symptoms.

Most people with COVID-19 can treat the disease at home with over-the-counter medicines. If you develop more severe symptoms, your healthcare provider may prescribe:

  • Antiviral medicines
  • Immunity-boosting drugs called monoclonal antibodies

You can prevent COVID-19 infection or lower symptom severity by getting vaccinated.

At Risk?

If you're at risk for severe disease or become really sick with COVID-19, get medical attention right away. Treatments are most effective when started within days of developing symptoms.

Allergies

Woman blowing her nose at outdoor cafe
LeoPatrizi/iStock

Also known as: Hay fever and allergic rhinitis

Allergic reactions often cause a runny nose. It may happen most often in the spring or fall.

In allergies, the runny nose comes from your body's inflammatory response to pollen, spores, mold, or other allergens in the air. When you inhale an allergen, your immune system sounds the alarm and releases chemicals (histamines for example) that cause inflammation in your nasal membranes and eyes.

Pollen comes from:

  • Flowering plants
  • Trees
  • Weeds
  • Grasses

You may also be allergic to dust, pet dander, or smoke from wildfires.

Nasal secretions from allergies are usually clear, but they may also contain pus.

For mild to moderate allergy symptoms, the first line of treatment is an oral antihistamine or nasal antihistamine spray. Glucocorticoid nasal sprays, which help decrease inflammation, may also be effective.

While antihistamines help with a runny nose, they're not generally effective against allergy-related nasal congestion.

Cold Air

Woman blowing nose outside.
Axel Bueckert / EyeEm / Getty Images

Have you gone outside to enjoy the fresh snow only to have a runny nose ruin the moment? If outside long enough, you might even develop chapped lips from constantly wiping your nasal secretions away from your upper lip.

Cold, dry air is known to dry out the nasal membranes. The change causes your inflammatory response and nasal nervous system reflexes to work together causing the nasal glands to produce mucus to moisturize and warm the air entering the nose.

As a result, you end up with a drippy nose. Wearing a scarf or mask over your nose may help prevent it.

Eating, Especially Spicy Food

Hot peppers in a mason jar.

JBfotoblog / Getty Images

Also known as: Gustatory rhinitis

Spicy foods like hot chili peppers are very likely to make your nose run if you have gustatory rhinitis, a form of nonallergic rhinitis. Common triggers are spices such as black pepper, curry, garlic, hot sauce, salsa, ginger, and chili powder. However, any food can cause this reaction.

Scientists are still trying to figure out exactly why eating food makes some people get a runny nose. What they do know is that it's not really an immune response.

It's more likely related to stimulation (or irritation) of the trigeminal nerve. And it may be associated with a parasympathetic response, which is involved in digestion.

Some people love to push their limits, and desire the full experience of their eyes watering, nose running, and throat burning as they eat their fire alarm hot wings. But, if you are not a fan of the experience, you can reduce your symptoms of gustatory rhinitis when you simply avoid spicy foods.

Another option, however, is taking medicine such as intranasal atropine which is helpful when you can't (or don't want to) avoid foods that are spicy. As a last resort, surgery can be helpful if it's significantly impacting your quality of life.

Hormones

Pregnant woman holding stomach.
Hero Images / Getty Images

Also known as: Hormonal rhinitis

Hormones can directly affect the membranes in your nasal passages, causing your mucus glands to become more reactive. Hormones that may be involved include:

Symptoms related to rhinitis during a woman's menstrual cycle, while taking birth control, or during pregnancy, seem to mirror estrogen levels.

For example, peak levels of estrogen that occur midway through the menstrual cycle can increase nasal membrane reactivity and trigger cytokine production which can lead to inflammation (congestion and runny nose) at that time.

Those are also common symptoms during pregnancy when mucus membranes become more reactive and there is an increase blood flow to your nasal blood vessels. Research shows that 39% of women experience runny nose and congestion during pregnancy.

Experts don't know much yet about treating hormonal rhinitis. Hormone replacement therapy does not seem to alleviate symptoms.

If you're pregnant, you can try nasal saline spray or exercise to potentially decrease symptoms. If you need more help, talk to your healthcare provider about whether any of these drugs are a safe option for you and your baby:

Many other possible treatments may be harmful to your baby. Always ask your healthcare provider before starting a new medication.

Medications

Medications.
Photography by ZhangXun / Getty Images

Also known as: Medication-induced rhinitis

A runny nose is a known side effect of some medications. Each medication can cause a runny nose in a different way.

While not a complete list, medications used to treat the following conditions are known to cause runny nose in some people:

A runny nose is also a possible side effect of birth control.

Exercise

Two women running.
Holde Schneider / Getty Images

Also known as: Vasomotor rhinitis

Aerobic exercise such as running, aerobics, and even intercourse may cause your runny nose. The increased blood flow to the nose during physical activity causes that watery drip. Research shows that more athletes suffer from exercise induced rhinitis (EIR) than non-athletes and 40% indicate it affects their performance.

But if you experience a runny nose while being active outdoors, the cause may be more realistically related to:

  • Allergies
  • Cold weather
  • Another irritant

If you experience a runny nose frequently while being active, you can ask your healthcare provider if a medication called Atrovent (ipratropium) would be a good choice for you. It relaxes the muscles around your airways so you can breathe better.

Crying

Hispanic woman crying being hugged by another woman

Sollina Images / Getty Images

Crying naturally causes you to have a runny nose because:

  • Tears drain from your eyes through small openings in your lower eyelids called lacrimal puncta.
  • They then enter a tube called the nasolacrimal duct
  • That duct drains directly into your nose

Once you stop crying, the runny nose should clear up pretty quickly.

Chronic Sinusitis

Woman with sinusitis

Cecilie_Arcurs / Getty Images

The sinuses are four spaces (cavities) in your head connected by passageways. The sinuses are in charge of making mucus that drains from the nasal passageways into the nose.

Mucus flushes bacteria and debris out of your nasal passages and into the back of the throat so you can swallow it. This keeps bacteria from getting trapped in your nose and causing an infection.

When you're congested, bacteria stay in there and can lead to sinusitis (sinus infection). When it lasts for 12 weeks or more, it's called chronic sinusitis.

Besides a runny nose, symptoms include:

  • Sinus drainage down the back of the throat
  • Facial pressure and pain
  • Stuffy nose
  • Reduced sense of taste or smell

Some severe sinus infections require antibiotics, but most of them go away without medical treatment. To ease symptoms on your own, you can try:

  • Using a saline or decongestant nasal spray
  • A warm moist cloth on your forehead or nose
  • Inhaling steam from a warm shower or bowl of hot water

When Treatment Doesn't Work

For chronic sinusitis that doesn't respond to medication or at-home treatments, your healthcare provider may recommend sinus surgery to treat the problem.

Sinus Polyps

Sinus polyps

Dmytro Bosnak / Getty Images

Sinus or nasal polyps are soft growths of tissue inside your nose and sinuses. They make it difficult for you to breathe.

Nasal polyps are common in people who also have:

A runny nose is just one symptom of sinus polyps. But you may also have:

Treating Polyps

The first treatment for nasal polyps is usually medication. If that doesn't work, you may need surgery.

Deviated Septum

woman with deviated septum

Hello Africa / Getty Images

The septum is the bone and cartilage between your nostrils. When it leans to one side of the nasal cavity, it's called a deviated septum.

A deviated septum can cause breathing problems, including a runny nose. Other symptoms are:

  • Stuffy nose
  • Difficulty breathing through either one or both nostrils
  • Repeated sinus infections
  • Noisy breathing (in babies and children)
  • Mouth-breathing while asleep (in adults)

Some people are born with a deviated septum. You can also get one from an injury like a broken nose.

If symptoms are mild, a deviated septum doesn't need treatment. If symptoms are more serious, a surgery called septoplasty can correct it.

Spinal Fluid Leak

Spinal fluid leak

SCIEPRO / Getty Images

A special fluid that surrounds your spinal cord and brain is called cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). It's held in by a membrane.

When there's a tear in the membrane, the CSF can leak out. This can occur because of a:

Sometimes, a spinal fluid leak occurs for no particular reason.

Drainage from the ear and the nose are both rare symptoms that can occur. You may also develop a headache that gets worse when you sit but decreases when you lie down.

Spinal fluid leaks are rare. The first treatment is usually bed rest. Other treatments may include saline infusions, IV caffeine infusions, and hydration. If those treatments don't work, you may need surgery.

Churg-Strauss Syndrome

Woman blowing her nose

dowell / Getty Images

Churg-Strauss syndrome, also known as eosinophilic granulomatosis with polyangiitis (EGPA), is a rare disease that causes inflammation in the cells of your tissues or blood.

People who develop Churg-Strauss have a history of asthma or allergies. It can affect:

In rare cases, Churg-Strauss syndrome can affect the brain.

A runny nose is a common symptom of Churg-Strauss syndrome. Other symptoms include:

Mild Churg-Strauss syndrome is often treated with an anti-inflammatory medication called prednisone.

Treating Churg-Strauss

Other medications that can help treat Churg-Strauss syndrome include:

  • Methotrexate azathioprine
  • Mycophenolate mofetil
  • Cytotoxic agents such as cyclophosphamide
  • Mepolizumab

Due to the risk of side effects and complications, some of these can only be used for a short period of time.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

A runny nose that isn't connected to a serious illness usually goes away on its own. But you should see a healthcare provider if:

  • Your runny nose lasts more than 10 days
  • You have a high fever
  • You have a yellow or green discharge from your nose along with sinus pain or pressure
  • You notice a foul smell coming from inside your nose

Summary

If you have a runny nose, it may be caused by something as simple as the common cold. But allergies, COVID-19, cold air, exercise, crying, spicy food, and several medical conditions can also make your nose run.

If you have a runny nose for more than ten days or alongside severe symptoms, contact your healthcare provider.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is a runny nose contagious?

    Not necessarily. A runny nose can be a symptom of something that's contagious, like the common cold or COVID-19. But it could also have a non-contagious cause, like cold air, hormones, or allergies.

  • Why is only one side of my nose runny?

    One side of your nose may be runny because of various reasons. Sometimes the common cold causes a runny nose on one side. You may have a deviated septum. In rare cases, it could be a spinal fluid leak or nasal/sinus cancer.

  • Is a constant runny nose serious?

    A constant runny nose may not be serious. but talk to your healthcare provider if it lasts more than 10 days. You should also let them know if you have a runny nose along with other symptoms such as a high fever.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kristin Hayes, RN
Kristin Hayes, RN, is a registered nurse specializing in ear, nose, and throat disorders for both adults and children.