Rhinorrhea (Runny Nose)

Rhinorrhea (runny nose) is a very common symptom. It most often happens due to allergies and viral infections (like a cold or the flu). But several other conditions can make your nose drip. A runny nose typically goes away on its own, but certain treatments can improve it.


What is rhinorrhea (runny nose)?

Rhinorrhea (runny nose) is mucus (snot) dripping or “running” out of your nose. It has several possible causes, such as cold and/or dry air, allergies or the common cold. A related condition is rhinitis. Rhinitis is the inflammation of your nasal tissues.

The consistency and color of the mucus that runs out of your nose can vary. Allergies, eating spicy food and being in cold temperatures typically cause a more watery nasal discharge. When you have a cold or another infection, your body usually makes thicker mucus.

Rhinorrhea can occur on its own, but it often happens alongside the following symptoms:

Most cases of a runny nose are temporary, but some people can have chronic rhinorrhea.


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How does rhinorrhea (runny nose) happen?

Several nasal structures and bodily processes can contribute to a runny nose, including:

  • Nasal mucus glands: Your mucus glands produce mucus constantly to keep the inside of your nose moist and healthy. Mucus also helps protect you from germs and other irritants. Stimulation of your parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) leads to an increase in mucus production and release.
  • Epithelial cells: These are the cells that line the inside of your nasal cavities. They can release cells called cytokines as part of your body’s inflammatory response, which leads to mucus production and a runny nose.
  • Blood vessels in your nose: Your blood vessels can constrict (tighten) and dilate (widen). This regulates congestion of your nasal passage during an inflammatory response. In a process called vascular permeability, fluids move through blood vessel walls. In your nose, fluid from your blood vessels can “leak” out and lead to a runny nose. Histamine (the chemical that triggers allergic reactions) stimulates vascular permeability and dilation of blood vessels, resulting in a runny nose.
  • Your immune system: When you’re sick, it’s because pathogens have gotten past the mucus lining of your nose and respiratory system. Your immune system releases special substances to seek out and destroy the pathogens. Those same substances instruct cells in your nose to generate more mucus to clear out other potentially harmful pathogens. As mucus production goes into overdrive, your nose starts to run and get congested. Once your body clears the pathogens, your immune system decreases its alarm bells, and your mucus lining returns to normal. Your immune system is also involved in allergies. It thinks the allergens are harmful (even though they’re not) and goes into attack mode.

Possible Causes

What causes a runny nose?

The two most common causes of a runny nose include:

Allergens are harmless to most people. But if you have allergic rhinitis, your immune system thinks the allergen is intruding. Your immune system tries to protect your body by releasing histamine. It causes mucous membranes in your nose, eyes and throat to become inflamed and itchy as they work to eject the allergen. Histamine also causes a runny nose. Allergies typically cause more watery nasal discharge.

Breathing in a virus irritates the lining of your nose and sinuses (air-filled pockets around your face). Your nose starts to make a lot of clear mucus in response. This mucus traps the virus and helps flush it out of your nose and sinuses. If the virus makes it past your mucus lining, you get sick. Your body produces more mucus, which may change color and become white or yellow. Sometimes, the mucus may turn a greenish color.

Other causes of a runny nose

Other causes of rhinitis include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Cold temperatures: When you breathe in through your nose, your nose warms the air and adds moisture to it as it goes down into your lungs. Cold, dry air irritates your nasal lining. In defense, your nasal glands produce excess mucus to keep the lining moist, resulting in a runny nose.
  • Shedding tears (lacrimation): When your body produces excess tears (such as from crying or an irritant in your eyes), the tears drain through the inner corner of your eyelids, through the nasolacrimal duct and into your nasal cavities. These tears can drip out of your nose and stimulate mucus production, leading to more nasal discharge.
  • Sinus infection (sinusitis): Bacterial infections, viral infections and allergies can irritate your sinuses, causing them to get blocked and filled with fluid. This can cause pressure and pain in your face, nasal congestion and a runny nose with thick yellow or green mucus.
  • Nasal polyps: Nasal polyps are painless and benign (not cancerous) growths inside your nose and sinuses. As they grow, they can cause a runny nose and other symptoms.
  • Nasal foreign body: If something gets stuck up your nose, it causes your body to create mucus to try to clear it out. This is common in children and usually involves foul-smelling mucus that comes out of one nostril.
  • Nonallergic rhinitis: This happens when you have a runny nose, sneezing and related symptoms without a known allergic cause for weeks to months. Irritants like tobacco smoke, traffic fumes and strong odors can trigger nonallergic rhinitis. Vasomotor rhinitis is the most common type.
  • Gustatory rhinitis: This causes a runny nose when you eat certain foods, like spicy or warm food. A chemical in spicy foods called capsaicin triggers your trigeminal nerve, which causes your nose to run.
  • Pregnancy rhinitis: This is when you have a runny nose and/or nasal congestion for six weeks or more during pregnancy. It happens due to changes in blood flow (in this case, to your mucus membranes) and hormone changes.
  • Certain medications: Certain medications can have a side effect of runny nose, including birth control pills, some blood pressure medications, antidepressants and erectile dysfunction medications.
  • Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) leak: A CSF leak is when the fluid surrounding your brain and spinal cord leaks from where it’s supposed to be. In some cases, it can drip out of your nose. It’s typically clear and watery and usually only comes out of one nostril.
  • Opioid withdrawal: Opioid withdrawal happens if you have a physical dependence on opioids and stop taking them. It causes many symptoms, including a runny nose and excessively watery eyes.


Care and Treatment

How is a runny nose treated?

In most cases, runny noses go away on their own. Generally, they don’t need treatment. But there are exceptions, including:

  • Sinus infections: Sinus infections can go away on their own. But if your symptoms don’t improve after 10 days, a healthcare provider may prescribe antibiotics, oral or topical decongestants, or intranasal steroid sprays.
  • Chronic rhinitis: If you have a chronic (long-term) runny nose, your provider might refer you to an ear, nose and throat specialist (ENT) to determine the underlying cause. You may need surgery for structural problems such as nasal polyps, a deviated septum or enlarged adenoids.
  • Nasal foreign bodies: An object stuck in your (or your child’s) nose needs to be removed. Providers use multiple removal techniques, including instruments like tweezers or forceps, forced exhalation and suctioning.

How can I stop a runny nose?

Rhinorrhea typically runs its course. There’s nothing you can do to immediately stop it. It usually goes away in time.

But certain at-home remedies and medicines may provide some relief.

At-home runny nose remedies

Try the following to help with runny nose symptoms:

  • Resting.
  • Drinking plenty of fluids, especially water.
  • Applying a warm, moist washcloth to your face.
  • Inhaling steam two to four times a day. One way to do this is to sit in the bathroom with the shower running. Don’t inhale very hot steam.
  • Using a humidifier or vaporizer at your bedside. This can combat congestion worsened by dry air.
  • Using a saline nasal spray to help clear out mucus. Limit the use of decongestant nasal sprays to no longer than a few days, as instructed on package labels.

Runny nose medicines

Certain over-the-counter (OTC) medications can help, including:

  • Expectorants: These medications can thin mucus to help clear it from your chest. It may help a runny nose, too.
  • Decongestants: These medications shrink and dry up your nasal passages. They may help dry up a runny or stuffy nose.
  • Antihistamines: These medications can help if your runny nose is due to allergies.

Check with your healthcare provider to see what over-the-counter medicines are appropriate for you. Always follow the instructions on the medications.

Unless your provider recommends it, don’t give over-the-counter cold medicines to a child under 6 years old.


How long does a runny nose last?

How long a runny nose lasts depends on the underlying cause.

With a viral infection, such as a cold, a runny or stuffy nose can last up to 10 to 14 days. A runny nose from allergies usually lasts as long as you’re exposed to the allergen. If you’re allergic to pollen, it can last six weeks during pollen seasons in the spring, summer or fall.

You should see your healthcare provider if you’ve had a runny nose for more than three weeks that isn’t from a known allergy.

Can a runny nose cause complications?

In some cases, a runny nose can lead to mild complications, including:

  • Postnasal drip: Excess mucus can build up and drip down the back of your throat. This can make your throat sore and cause coughing.
  • Sinus infection: If a sinus passage becomes blocked, it can lead to a sinus infection, which is often painful. You may need prescription medication to treat it.
  • Ear pain or ear infection: If excess mucus backs up into your eustachian tube, it can result in ear pain or an ear infection.

All of these conditions are treatable.

Can I prevent a runny nose?

You can’t always prevent a runny nose. But there are steps you can take to try to avoid getting a viral infection. Here are some simple tips to stop germs from spreading:

  • Wash your hands often.
  • Keep away from those who have colds or infections.
  • Eat healthily and exercise regularly to help boost your immune system.
  • Cough and sneeze into the inside of your elbow, not into your hand.
  • Clean and disinfect common surfaces such as tables and countertops, toys, door handles, phones and bathroom fixtures.
  • Stay up to date with all vaccines.

When it comes to allergies, the following steps may help:

  • Stay indoors when the pollen count is high, usually in the early morning and on windy days.
  • Keep your windows closed during allergy season, and use air conditioning whenever possible.
  • Wear a dust mask if you’re working outdoors. Change your clothing and take a shower right away after coming indoors.
  • Avoid contact with cats and dogs if you’re sensitive to animal dander.
  • Use antihistamines to help keep allergy symptoms, like a runny nose, at bay.

When To Call the Doctor

When should I see a healthcare provider about a runny nose?

Runny noses are very common and often don’t require a visit with a healthcare provider. But you should talk to your provider if:

  • Your runny nose or congestion lasts more than three weeks or occurs with a fever.
  • The discharge is coming out of one nostril, especially if it’s foul-smelling or bloody.
  • You have difficulty breathing.
  • You have swelling in your forehead, eyes, side of your nose or cheek.
  • You have blurred vision.
  • You have nasal discharge following a head injury, especially if it’s clear and watery.

Additional Common Questions

Is a runny nose a sign of COVID-19?

Yes, a runny nose is one of the possible symptoms of COVID-19. Other symptoms may include:

  • Fever or chills.
  • Cough.
  • Nasal congestion.
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing.
  • Fatigue.
  • Muscle or body aches.
  • Headache.
  • New loss of taste or smell.
  • Sore throat.
  • Nausea or vomiting.
  • Diarrhea.

Can teething cause a runny nose?

Teething doesn’t cause a runny nose. But it often causes excess drooling. If your baby has a runny nose while teething, it’s likely due to a viral infection (like a cold) or allergies.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Although a runny nose can be annoying, it’s often temporary and a sign that your immune system is working. Getting a runny nose in cold weather or when you have a cold, the flu or allergies is common. It usually doesn’t mean there’s an infection or something serious. Remember to use good hygiene practices to prevent a runny nose or similar issues. See a healthcare provider if your or your child’s runny nose seems unusual.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed on 07/28/2023.

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