Is the cold weather causing your runny nose?

In some parts of the country, temperatures have plummeted and old man winter has dumped mounds of snow and ice on the ground.

For some otherwise healthy people, simply spending time outside in the cold can bring on nasal congestion and a runny nose. 

The culprit behind these symptoms could be cold-induced rhinitis or skier nose.

How the nose functions

The nose is one of the first portals of our upper respiratory tract. Its job is to warm, filter and clean the air preparing it for the lungs. Regardless of the air temperature, the relative humidity in the back of the nose is around 100 percent and the average temperature is 78 to 86 degrees.

How the nose responds to cold air

When cold air enters the nose, it stimulates the sensory nerves within the nasal cavity to activate a process via a cholinergic reflex or pathway. It causes the vessels in the nasal cavity to expand and become engorged, leading to congestion and mucus secretion which produces a runny nose. It’s a compensatory mechanism that’s trying to maintain ideal conditions inside the nose by adding humidity and warmth while filtering the air.

Are some people more sensitive to changes in air temperature?

Our bodies are designed to acclimate to changes in air temperature. Some people are predisposed to being more sensitive to this reflex and may have stronger reactions. 

Can you prevent cold-induced rhinitis?

The body is designed to do this for a reason, but if it becomes a nuisance, you can curtail the cholinergic pathway by taking a prescription anti-cholinergic medication called ipratropium bromide. It would substantially decrease the mucus secretion, improving your runny nose.

How can I determine if I have cold-induced rhinitis?

There are multiple things that can cause congestion and a runny nose – the cold weather, allergens, irritants, some perfumes, even spicy foods. Since there are so many things that can cause your nose to run, it’s important to see your doctor to figure out what’s behind your symptoms and to determine what treatment, if any, is needed.

Dr. Alexander Farag is a head and neck surgeon and rhinologist in the department of otolaryngology at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.