Some people have noticed that when they eat spicy food, their noses run, occasionally while eating and sometimes afterwards. There are several reasons why the nose tends to run when people eat heavily spiced food, primarily due to certain chemicals in the food. For people who find it uncomfortable or irritating, prescription drugs are available to minimize the runny nose. These drugs are usually sprayed into the nose about an hour before eating.
The primary reason spicy food causes a runny nose is that it contains a chemical compound known as capsaicin, which is present in varying degrees in hot peppers. Capsaicin is an irritant, and as the mucus membranes in the nose are exposed to it, they become inflamed and increase mucus production. It can also irritate the membranes of the eyes, causing tearing. The tears drain into the sinuses and run out the nose.
Capsaicin is not the only thing which can irritate the nose and eyes and cause a runny nose. Compounds in members of the mustard family have similar effects, which is why a squirt of horseradish can elicit a similar squirt of tears. In fact, compounds from the mustard family are so potent that they have even been used as chemical weapons historically.
Gustatory rhinitis, as doctors refer to this type of runny nose, is also caused by exposure to warmth and steam. People who have colds are often told to eat warm, steamy foods or to use a steam tent for their heads to decongest their noses and sinuses. This works equally well when people do not have a cold. When people eat spicy food which is also hot, such as a steaming curry, the steam will loosen up mucus and contribute to the runny nose effect.
The heat and capsaicin also dilate blood vessels, which is why people tend to turn red as they eat spicy food. Sweating can also occur. In people who are acclimated to heat and heavy spicing, symptoms of this nature may only appear when someone eats something which is very hot.
For some people, the runny nose may simply be part of the experience of eating spicy food, while others may find it annoying. It is important to note that eating spicy dishes is not a good treatment for congestion, because in addition to acting as a decongestant, spicy food also triggers mucus production. People who eat spicy food while congested may end up more congested than when they started, even if they experienced temporary relief while eating.