Why Does Spicy Food Give You a Runny Nose?

(Last Updated On: September 27, 2022)

Maybe your nose is actually runny because you have a cold. Or allergies. Don’t worry, we won’t tell anyone about it. If you’re trying to have extra plausible deniability for what’s making your nose run, you’re probably looking for spicy food to get your sinuses flowing. For some reason. Let’s just cut to the chase; why does spicy food give you a runny nose?

Spicy Foods Don’t Want to Be Eaten

Truly a concept: most things don’t really want you to eat them.

But the sensation of “spiciness” comes from capsaicin inside your food (for the majority of spicy foods), and capsaicin serves as a very powerful deterrent against predators. Capsaicin binds to a certain receptor in your mouth–it’s called TRPV1 if you were curious. This receptor is stimulated by heat or abrasion, so when the inside of your mouth feels hot or scratched up it’s because the TRPV1 receptor was activated. Obviously, spicy food isn’t literally setting your mouth on fire, it’s just setting off the TRPV1 receptor–but your body doesn’t really know that. That’s why spicy food feels hot

So capsaicin makes your mouth think it’s being damaged. When you’re not weird like a human, this would be a pretty powerful deterrent. If you don’t believe us, capsaicin is the active ingredient in pepper spray. We don’t recommend macing your soup broth to make it more exciting though. For whatever reason humans can get an endorphin response from spicy food, and those of us who like spicy food essentially Pavlov ourselves into liking it

Further Reading: Why Do We Like Spicy Food? Is Spicy Food Bad For You?

Mucous Membranes

Snot. Gross. 

Turns out capsaicin does a little more than just irritate the inside of your mouth–which you probably figured out when from “it’s one of the active ingredients in mace”. Capsaicin, and even other spicy oils like allyl isothiocyanate, get into the mucous membranes that protect the inside of your body from things on the outside. The snot your mucous membranes make is used to keep stuff like dust out, as well as kill bacteria that might be trying to make its way in. As a general rule, the more irritated your mucous membranes are, the more snot your body is going to be making as a countermeasure. So while nothing new might be trying to get into your body, your mucous membranes will have a harder time being convinced of that with all the spicy food annoying them. 

This applies to the rest of your inside too. Capsaicin doesn’t stop irritating your body once you swallow it, its irritating properties get your stomach and intestines to produce extra fluid as well; your body generally produces fluids when there’s something in there it doesn’t like. In this case it’s your snot, but you can think of it like your body turning on the water to try and flush out whatever just got it. This is why some people who are perhaps less tolerant of spicy foods might get diarrhea from it. 

Despite being so irritating for your organs, studies air on the side of “spicy food is good for you.” It can help your arterial function, and can play an important role in weight loss.

See if you know your FDA spices here.



About Kyler 728 Articles
Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.