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Why Does Your Nose Run When It's Cold Outside?

Story at-a-glance -

  • A runny nose in the cold weather protects your nasal membranes and helps trap debris, keeping it from entering your lungs
  • You may also experience a runny nose with allergic reactions or if you get a cold
  • Although you can’t stop a runny nose, you can speed your recovery from a cold and make changes to your lifestyle choices to help prevent colds and allergic reactions

By Dr. Mercola

Although irritating and sometimes embarrassing, a runny nose in cold weather is actually one way your body protects your mucus membranes.1

The additional mucus and fluid also helps to catch bacteria, viruses and other foreign bodies. These are trapped in the mucus and then leave as the mucus drips out of your nose.

When you are sick with a virus or cold, the germs trigger additional mucus production as well.

This is also designed to help fight foreign substances and wash them out of your body. Interestingly, even when you aren’t sick, glands in your nose, throat, airways and intestines produce between one to two quarts of mucus every day.2

First Biology, Second Gravity

In the cold weather, your body produces more mucus to warm the air and moisturize your membranes, protecting it from the cold, dry air. This additional mucus acts like flypaper.

Any debris from the environment, such as bacteria, viruses, or other small foreign bodies, are stuck to the mucus and either swallowed or drip out your nose.

The action of capturing and removing foreign objects helps protect the delicate tissue in the air sacs, or bronchioles, in your lungs from being damaged. Instead, the dust particles and germs are swallowed and destroyed by enzymes in your stomach or leave when your nose is dripping.

The second reason your nose drips in the cold air is related to simple chemistry and physics. As you breathe in air, your body heats the air. When you exhale warm, moist air is released into cold, dry air. The reaction between warm and moist air with cold and dry air produces droplets of water.

You can see this same phenomenon in your shower at home. As you take a hot shower, droplets of water often form on the bathroom mirror, as a result of mixing warm air generated by a hot shower and cold air in the bathroom.

Droplets of water form near the end of your nose when the warm air from your lungs meets the cold air outside. Then gravity takes over.

These water droplets may mix with mucus and begin their journey out of your body. Unfortunately, no amount of sniffling will keep them from exiting, because the droplets form too close to the end of your nose.

What About When You’re Sick?

You may develop a runny nose, also called rhinorrhea, when you are infected by a virus or have a reaction to a protein molecule (a common allergic reaction). In this instance, the increased mucus production is an immune system response.

The mucus functions as a trap for the allergen molecules or viruses, flushing them out of your nasal passage or into your digestive tract.

A secondary symptom when you are sick is postnasal drip. This does not happen when your nose is running from cold weather, but only when your mucus production increases from a cold or allergy.

The liquid dripping down the back of your throat will be irritating and can contain inflammatory substances, which may trigger a cough, especially at night. The excess mucus in the back of your throat can give you a sore throat and make you feel and sound hoarse.

The additional mucus is produced in your nose, airway, sinuses and intestinal tract. If mucus blocks the sinus passages, it can lead to a sinus infection as bacteria or viruses, trapped in the mucus, begin growing in your sinuses.

If the mucus blocks the Eustachian tube that connects your middle ear to your throat, it can trigger an ear infection.

Support Your Immune System and Prevent or Shorten the Length of a Cold

Dripping noses from cold weather will clear spontaneously once you come inside and get warmed up. But increased mucus production and postnasal drip don’t clear as quickly when it’s triggered by a cold virus.

The choices you make each day have a significant impact on your body’s ability to fight bacteria, viruses and other pathogens. This is a good time to include foods that will support your immune system, such as:

  • High-quality whey protein
  • Fermented foods you can make at home to populate your intestines with beneficial bacteria
  • Coconuts and coconut oil
  • Mushrooms, especially shitake, reishi, cordyceps, turkey tail, and Himematsutake, which contain beta-glucans and have immune-enhancing properties
  • Garlic, a potent antimicrobial, which may kill fungi, viruses and bacteria

Here are additional steps you can take to reduce the length of time you suffer from a cold or help prevent one from starting.

1. Propolis

This resin substance that bees gather from leaf buds of trees and some vegetables is transformed by the bees and used to disinfect the hive.

It is one of the most broad-spectrum anti-microbial compounds known and a rich source of caffeic acid and apigenin, two compounds important in your immune response.

2. Steam

Although steam does not support your immune system, it will help to reduce the mucus plugs in your nose and sinuses and reduce the inflammation in your nasal passages, making it easier to breathe.

3. Oregano Oil

Concentrated oil from the oregano plant is available at the health food store in both capsules and oil. The oil has a strong flavor of oregano. The carvacrol concentration is the most active antimicrobial agent in oregano oil. The higher the concentration in the product you purchase, the more effective it may be.

4. Zinc

This nutritionally essential mineral is critical to the function of your immune system.3 Specifically zinc is used in the development of cells in your immune system that fight viruses and bacteria. It is also important to the structure of certain antioxidant enzymes in your body.

Zinc deficiency may increase your susceptibility to infectious agents. However, too much of one good thing also increases the potential for an imbalance in other nutrients. Your body requires a balance between all micronutrients, minerals and vitamins to function optimally.

This is why I recommend you get your daily zinc from a well-balanced diet. Taking a zinc lozenge within the first 24 hours of becoming ill with a cold has been shown to reduce the length and severity of the cold.

5. Vitamin D

Vitamin D deficiency is very common in the U.S. Your body naturally manufactures vitamin D with unprotected exposure to the sun. However, most Americans do not get the exposure time necessary throughout the whole year to produce adequate amounts of vitamin D. You can find more information about your body’s requirement for vitamin D in my free report.

If you take an oral supplement it’s important to take vitamin D3 and not vitamin D2, which carries an increased risk of mortality, according to a meta-analysis of 50 randomized controlled studies by the Cochrane Database.4

If you're taking high-dose vitamin D supplements, you also need to take vitamin K2. Vitamin K2 deficiency is actually what produces the symptoms of vitamin D toxicity, which includes inappropriate calcification that can lead to hardening of your arteries.

6. Hydrogen Peroxide

I don't typically advise over-the-counter medications, but one simple treatment you can try that is surprisingly effective against upper respiratory infections is hydrogen peroxide. Simply place a few drops of 3 percent hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) into each ear.

You will hear some bubbling, which is completely normal, and possibly feel a slight stinging sensation. Wait until the bubbling and stinging subside (usually 5 to 10 minutes), then drain onto a tissue and repeat with the other ear. A bottle of hydrogen peroxide in 3 percent solution is available at any drug store for a couple of dollars or less. Do not use this technique if you believe you have an ear infection and the ear drum may have ruptured or opened.

7. Vitamin C

This is a potent, water-soluble, antioxidant that’s excellent for immune-system support; even minor deficiency may contribute to an increased risk of acquiring an infectious agent, such as a cold virus.5 

For instance, research published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews in 2013 found that regular supplementation with vitamin C had a “modest but consistent effect in reducing the duration of common cold symptoms.”6

Endurance athletes who took vitamin C supplements also halved their risk for the common cold. Kiwi fruits are exceptionally high in vitamin C, along with vitamin E, folate, polyphenols, and carotenoids. Research published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that a kiwi-packed diet reduced the duration and severity of upper respiratory tract infections symptoms in older individuals.7

Other foods high in vitamin C include citrus fruits, red bell peppers, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, butternut squash, papaya, sweet potatoes and tomatoes.

8. Olive Leaf Extract

Ancient Egyptians and Mediterranean cultures used it for a variety of health-promoting uses and it is widely known as a natural, non-toxic immune system builder.

9. Sleep and Stress Reduction

The importance of sleep and stress reduction to your immune system cannot be overemphasized. You may take for granted your ability to work long hours and sleep less, but that practice places a huge burden on your immune system, and therefore your ability to fight infections. You’ll discover 33 secrets to improving your sleep quality here.

10. Hand Washing

The simple act of washing your hands reduces your exposure to bacteria and viruses. Although this won’t shorten a current infection, it may help prevent future infections. Do be careful not to over-wash your hands, as this may cause tiny tears in your skin via which infectious agents can enter your body. And keep your hands away from your face as much as possible to prevent the spread of viruses directly to your eyes, nose and mouth.

11. Regular Exercise

This is crucial to preventing infections and enhancing your immune system. In one study researchers found those individuals who exercised regularly (at least five times a week), reduced their risk of getting a cold by 50 percent.8 Exercise is also beneficial to improve sleep quality and reduce stress, also important in supporting your immune system.

12. Avoid Sugar and Grains

If you feel you’re getting sick, this is the time to avoid sugar, artificial sweeteners, processed foods and grains. Sugar damages your immune system and increases your risk of getting sick. Processed foods are often sweetened with sugar or artificial sweeteners and grains are metabolized into sugar in your body.

Natural Ways to Reduce Your Rhinorrhea From an Allergic Reaction

Allergic reactions can also trigger a runny nose. Several of the methods to shorten or prevent a cold can also be used to balance your immune system and reduce the reaction to allergens. Adequate quality sleep, stress reduction, hand washing and avoiding sugar and grains are some of the first strategies you should use during allergy season. Here are several other natural ways to help reduce dripping from your nose.

Avoid chlorinated pools and hot tubs as they may increase respiratory problems and increase your allergic response. Use a neti pot to flush out your nasal passages a couple times a day. This helps remove the allergens in your sinuses and reduces your allergic response.

Use ONLY sterile water in your neti pot to prevent life threatening consequences.
Acupuncture and Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT)  are energy techniques used to reduce the exaggerated immune response your body has to specific protein molecules. Keep the windows in your car and home closed on days when the pollen counts are high to reduce your exposure.
Stinging nettle is a natural antihistamine that may help reduce your runny nose without the associated side effects from pharmaceutical antihistamines, such as drowsiness and dry mouth.

The recommended dose is 300 mg freeze-dried nettle extract daily.
Eucalyptus oil is soothing and may be healing to your mucus membranes.

Add a couple drops of pure oil to boiling water for a steam treatment, a few drops in your bathwater or a drop on a cotton ball you can sniff several times daily.