Cold Weather and Runny Noses

Why does my nose run when it's cold outside?

Woman blowing nose, fall scene
You are likely to get a runny nose in cold weather. Guido Mieth/Moment/Getty Images

While you may wish you could turn your runny nose off like a faucet, that drip actually serves several important purposes in protecting your health. The moisture protects your mucus membranes; traps germs such as bacteria and viruses; and keeps foreign substances out of your nasal passages and body. 

While your body produces between one and two quarts of mucus every day, certain conditions can increase that amount.

Allergies caused by pollen or mold in the air, rhinoviruses (also known as the common cold) and irritation can all cause your body to secrete excess mucus, as can exposure to cold weather. 

Vasomotor Rhinitis

When you only have a runny nose while outdoors in cooler temperatures and no other symptoms of allergies or illness, the culprit could be vasomotor rhinitis, a type of nonallergic rhinitis caused by changes in temperature, humidity, and exposure to strong odors and perfumes. Usually, a person with vasomotor rhinitis will have production of clear nasal discharge that may drain out of the front of the nose, down the back of the throat or result in nasal congestion.

Why Temperature Matters

Your body has an inherent intelligence that prompts it to take action to protect itself when needed. When exposed to cold temperatures, the additional mucus warms and moisturizes the air taken in through your nasal passages.

This protects your mucus membranes in your nose from damage due to the dry, cold air and also protects the bronchioles (delicate air sacs) in your lungs from damage.

In addition, a runny nose due to cold temperatures is a phenomenon similar to condensation. While the air you breathe in may be cold, your body temperature warms the air and when you exhale, you release that warm, moist air into the environment (which is cold).

As these two temperatures meet, droplets of water are produced, ultimately dripping down from your nose along with the mucus they mix with. 

How to Prevent Cold-Weather Runny Nose

The only way to effectively prevent a runny nose from developing due to cold exposure is to avoid breathing in cold air. One way to do that is by covering your nose and mouth with a wrap or scarf while outdoors, which allows the air to become warm and moist before you inhale it. 

Vasomotor rhinitis will not usually get better with antihistamines but may get better by using a nasal steroid or nasal antihistamine spray. The best medication for the treatment of vasomotor rhinitis, especially when the symptoms are a nose that “runs like a faucet," is Atrovent (ipratropium bromide) nasal spray. Atrovent works by drying up the mucus-producing cells in the nose and can be used as needed since the spray will start working within an hour. Atrovent nasal spray is available by prescription only—check with your doctor to see if this medication is right for you.

Finally, use a humidifier while indoors. Even if the temperature in your home is mild, air is generally drier during cold-weather months. Humidification can help keep your mucus membranes optimally moistened.

Learn about symptoms of a runny nose when you eat spicy foods.

Source:

Diagnosis and Management of Rhinitis: Joint Task Force on Practice Parameters in Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol. 1998;81:463-518.

Why Does Cold Weather Cause Runny Noses? National Public Radio. January 24, 2009. 

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