Medical Mysteries

Pass the jalapeños—and tissues!

Written by Fred Hilton

When it’s hot, there may be snot!

Writer: Fred Hilton

If you’re craving ethic food, try that nice Indian restaurant and get an order of pork vindaloo. Or maybe have some Hunan spicy beef at your favorite Chinese place or Mexican, with piles of jalapeños on nachos and even that scary hot sauce.

All of these dishes have three things in common: they’re tasty, burn your tongue, and make your nose run.

You expect the food to be good and burn your tongue. But the runny nose? Admittedly, that reaction is a bit strange, but this medical mystery has a simple and straightforward solution.

These foods contain a chemical called capsaicin. In plants, it’s used as a biological weapon against predatory animals. The capsaicin stops animals from crunching the seeds, eating the fruits, or harming the plants. Capsaicin irritates any soft tissue it comes in contact with, causing the burning sensation on your tongue. However, Mental Floss says, it also can “cause the painful sting of post-chili-handling eye contact and a seriously runny nose.” When mucous membranes get hit by capsaicin, “they become inflamed and go into defense mode…producing mucous to trap allergens and other undesirables…keeping them out of your respiratory system by removing them via the nasal passage.”

The website PepperScale agrees but isn’t as delicate: “Your body thinks there’s an irritant present, so the mucous membranes go on the defense to protect your respiratory system. That defense is to create more snot.”

Capsaicin isn’t the only culprit. Allyl isothiocyanate is a colorless oil found in mustard, radishes, and wasabi. Like capsaicin, it is a defense against animals. With Japanese sushi, you can get a major dose of allyl isothiocyanate from a big chunk of the wasabi that comes with it.

If the spiciness is too much, skip water and beer and reach for milk. Capsaicin’s oily quality keeps it from dissolving in water and beer contains too little alcohol to be more effective than water. Milk, on the other hand, quenches capsaicin’s fire effectively.

Enjoy your hot food, along with the accompanying capsaicin and allyl isothiocyanate. Just take plenty of tissues.

Medical Mysteries – June, 2017
Pass the jalapeños and the tissues, please
“Why Spicy Foods Can Cause Your Nose to Run,” by Daven Hiskey, Today I Found Out, Feb. 22, 2011.
“Why Do Spicy Foods Make Your Nose Run?” by Matt Soniak, Mental Floss, Oct. 5, 2011.
“Why Does Your Nose Run When You Eat Spicy Food?” by Nicholas Gerbis, Life’s Little Mysteries Contributor, Live Science, Aug. 10, 2010.
“Why Does Your Nose Run When You Eat Spicy Food?” PepperScale, June 19, 2014.
“Why Does Spicy Food Make Your Nose Run?” by Dr. Pramod Kerkar, Pain Assist Inc. July 8, 2016.

About the author

Fred Hilton

Fred Hilton spent thirty-six years as the chief public relations officer/spokesman for James Madison University in Virginia and ten years prior as a reporter and editor for The Roanoke Times in Roanoke, Virginia. He is now happily retired in The Villages with his interior designer wife, Leta, their Cadillac Escalade golf cart, and their dog, Paris. (Yes, that makes her Paris Hilton).

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