When you have allergies or a cold, a runny nose can be a nuisance. Some of us, however, may get a runny nose every time we enjoy a meal. While keeping a box of tissues with you at the dining table isn’t hurting you in any way, having a drippy nose every time you put food in your mouth can make you wonder: why does my nose run when I eat?
Meet the Experts: Meha Fox, M.D., assistant professor in the department of otolaryngology at Baylor College of Medicine; David A. Gudis, M.D., chief of rhinology and anterior skull base surgery at Columbia University Irving Medical Center; Benjamin Tweel, M.D., medical director for the department of otolaryngology at Mount Sinai Health System; Michael Yong, M.D., board-certified otolaryngologist and fellowship-trained neurorhinologist at Pacific Neuroscience Institute.
A runny nose is something that happens to everyone once in a while. But for people who get a runny nose every time they eat, here’s what doctors say you should know about the common condition. Plus, how to treat it if your runny nose is disrupting your daily life.
Why does my nose run when I eat?
A runny nose typically represents a form of rhinitis, which refers to inflammation or irritation of the nasal cavity, says David A. Gudis, M.D., chief of rhinology and anterior skull base surgery at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. “Everybody has experienced some form of rhinitis before, such as when a common cold causes a runny nose or nasal congestion. But some people suffer from other forms of rhinitis, and these symptoms can be frequent or long-lasting,” he explains.
Rhinitis is broadly categorized into either allergic or nonallergic rhinitis, and there are many types of nonallergic rhinitis—and some people may even have more than one type, says Dr. Gudis. For example, it is possible to have both gustatory and vasomotor rhinitis if the nerves in your nose are triggered by eating and temperature changes.
Allergic rhinitis is inflammation in the nasal cavity that occurs in response to various allergens, says Dr. Gudis. The most common allergens to trigger allergic rhinitis are seasonal allergens, such as grasses and tree pollen, and perennial allergens, such as dust mites, mold, and pet dander, says Meha Fox, M.D., assistant professor in the department of otolaryngology at Baylor College of Medicine. “Common symptoms of allergic rhinitis are nasal congestion, runny nose, sneezing, and itchy nose and eyes,” she notes.
Non-allergic rhinitis, on the other hand, is any rhinitis not caused by allergens, says Dr. Fox. Nonallergic rhinitis can include many different types, and is generally characterized by nasal discharge and sometimes also nasal congestion, says Dr. Gudis.
Non allergic rhinitis is a broad term encompassing gustatory rhinitis, vasomotor rhinitis, drug-induced rhinitis, and other “idiopathic” (unknown cause) forms of rhinitis, says Benjamin Tweel, M.D., medical director for the department of otolaryngology at Mount Sinai Health System. “As far as why individual people develop any of these, it is largely unknown.”
If your nose runs when you eat, you may have a type of nonallergic rhinitis called gustatory rhinitis, says Dr. Gudis. “Gustatory rhinitis is more common in older people and is characterized by clear watery nasal discharge with eating or just before eating,” he explains. It is not associated with congestion, itching, sneezing, or other nasal symptoms, he adds.
When we eat, our bodies are cued to produce saliva, says Dr. Tweel. “In some people, this process changes so that instead of just triggering saliva production they are also triggered to produce nasal mucus.” Having a runny nose when eating spicy foods is very common, but the reason for this is unknown, Dr. Tweel notes.
Gustatory rhinitis and vasomotor rhinitis have similar symptoms of clear watery nasal discharge without congestion, sneezing, or itching, but they have different triggers, says Dr. Gudis. “While gustatory rhinitis occurs from eating, vasomotor rhinitis can be triggered by various different causes including changes in temperature, humidity, and air pressure.” So if you’ve ever had a runny nose after being outside in the cold, now you know why!
This problem becomes more common as people get older, says Dr. Tweel.
How to get diagnosed
Many people will be able to self-diagnose to some degree, says Dr. Tweel. “For instance someone who gets rhinitis symptoms while near cats, and responds well to an over the counter antihistamine or allergy pill or allergy nasal spray can reasonably deduce that they have allergic rhinitis. Likewise, someone who gets a runny nose with every meal most likely has gustatory rhinitis,” he explains.
But, because rhinitis symptoms can overlap with other conditions, such as chronic sinusitis or nasal polyps, formal diagnosis is best made by a physician, says Dr. Tweel. “In some cases, symptoms of rhinitis can be more pronounced because they are occurring on top of existing symptoms from an underlying condition such as chronic sinusitis.”
Dr. Gudis agrees that the best way to get diagnosed is to see an Otolaryngology (Ear, Nose, and Throat) specialist. “The description of your symptoms and your triggers, in addition to the appearance of the inside of your nose (often visualized with a tiny scope), can help your doctor determine the cause of your symptoms, the type of rhinitis, and the possible treatment options,” he explains.
For allergic rhinitis, you can get tested for the most common allergens in your area to discover your allergy triggers, says Dr. Fox, “but remember that you only get information about the most common allergens or what the test includes.” It is possible to have symptoms of allergic rhinitis with a normal test as well, she notes.
How to treat a runny nose when you eat
The good news is that rhinitis is very unlikely to represent a dangerous condition, says Dr. Gudis. “Therefore, if your symptoms are limited to a runny nose while you eat, no treatment is necessary unless it is really bothering you.”
As with most medical conditions, there are an array of treatment options for different kinds of rhinitis, and your own treatment plan will likely depend on your associated symptoms and how much your symptoms are affecting your quality of life.
Per Michael Yong, M.D., board-certified otolaryngologist and fellowship-trained neurorhinologist at Pacific Neuroscience Institute, it’s best to start to treat the condition with topical medications, like sprays and rinses. “This is because these are very safe options as they have very little, if any, systemic absorption, so they don’t have the side effects of oral medications and can be directly applied to the problem area,” he explains.
The mainstay of treatment for gustatory rhinitis is a nasal spray called ipratropium, which is generally very effective in preventing runny nose, says Dr. Tweel. “Some people will use this spray before going out to a restaurant, for instance.” Ipratropium is available with a prescription, and is generally safe although it does have some contraindications, including some types of glaucoma, he notes. For some people antihistamine pills or nasal sprays can help if they have baseline allergies, says Dr. Tweel, “but this is usually not as effective.”
More recently, some procedures have been developed to freeze or ablate the nasal nerve which causes the nose to run, says Dr. Tweel. One of these procedures, known as RhinAer, uses temperature-controlled, radiofrequency technology to directly interrupt nerve signals and help reduce chronic rhinitis symptoms, explains Dr. Fox. “The procedure can be performed with a local anesthetic during an office visit, with no incisions, minimal downtime, and little discomfort.”
Multiple clinical studies show sustained symptom improvement of at least 2 years, Dr. Fox notes. Dr. Yong says that about 80% of people see lasting improvement following the procedure, “so it can be helpful for the right person.”
But again, Dr. Gudis reminds that if you’d rather just keep an extra tissue around than consider these treatments, “that’s fine too!”
When to see a doctor for a runny nose when you eat
If the runny nose only happens with meals, it is unlikely to be a sign of something concerning, says Dr. Tweel, “but if the symptom is bothersome or persistent, you should ask your doctor.”
If the runny nose is thick or discolored, then it is more likely to be acute or chronic sinusitis, says Dr. Tweel, which is treated differently. “Rhinitis (allergic, non-allergic, gustatory, or vasomotor) tends to be clear.”
If you do have any chronic congestion, loss of smell, difficulty breathing through the nose, discolored or thick discharge or blood, there may be something related or unrelated that is causing the symptoms and you should get checked out by your primary care physician or an ENT, says Dr. Yong.
Additionally, if you have a persistent watery runny nose from one side of your nose, especially faucet-like drainage, this could be a sign of a spinal fluid leak and you should seek medical care right away, says Dr. Tweel. “That is very rare, but important to identify.”
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