The Real Reason Spicy Food Makes Your Nose Run

Whether curry, Szechuan rice, or Nashville-style hot chicken generously seasoned with cayenne pepper and hot sauce, some people say that the spicier food is, the better. Yet even if you swear that you can take it, your body seems to signal otherwise, complete with teary eyes, sweating, and a runny nose. What gives?

Blame the plant compound capsaicin, which occurs in all members of the Capsicum family, including cayenne peppers, jalapeño peppers, and other chili peppers (via The Spruce Eats). Capsaicin is an irritant for mammals (including humans), so when it hits the skin or any mucous membrane, it causes a burning sensation, according to BuzzFeed News.

When you eat spicy foods, capsaicin binds to the heat and pain receptors on your tongue, sending signals to your brain, says Dr. Vivek Kumbhari, director of bariatric endoscopy at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland. This tricks the brain into thinking you're experiencing a change in temperature, so the body tries to cool itself. "One way our body does this is by sweating and another way is by breathing fast," Kumbhari tells BuzzFeed News.

Dairy foods or icy water can help cool the fiery feeling

The body also tries to get rid of what it considers a foreign substance, flushing it out by producing more saliva, tears, and mucus, Kumbhari says. Cue the runny nose and watery eyes — all without watching a Pixar movie. Depending on how spicy your food is, you might also feel a burning sensation in your chest, plus stomach cramps and even diarrhea. You're not damaging your digestive tract; it's all related to capsaicin activating different pain receptors in the body and the body trying to move it along.

So instead of inflaming your taste buds, capsaicin actually triggers a neurological response (via Slate). And while it might feel like you're burning your tongue, you're really not, although these same pain receptors leap into action when you bite into something scalding, like pizza fresh from the oven.

Aside from wiping your nose with extra napkins, you can stop the reaction and the burning sensation by counteracting the capsaicin. While icy water may help — room temperature water only spreads around the fiery feeling — capsaicin dissolves when it encounters the protein in dairy products. That's why a glass of milk, coleslaw, or a dip such as blue cheese dressing or sour cream provides a cooling touch.