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Why does running make my nose run?

Dec. 22, 2011 at 9:09 AM ET

Clearly, she's embarrassed to turn around, lest we see her "runner's face."

It sounds like the setup to a really corny joke: Every time I run, my nose runs, too! (You'd better go catch it, etc.) But it's a real nuisance for runny-nosed runners -- including TODAY's own Kathie Lee Gifford, who wondered aloud on Wednesday's broadcast why jogging left her congested and miserable. (You can watch that video here -- it's at 1:45.) So what's going on?

It's called exercise-induced rhinitis, and it's a lot like allergic rhinitis -- also called hay fever or nasal allergies. For the unlucky people with EIR, as it's called, a good workout triggers allergy symptoms: congestion, sneezing, runny nose, itchiness, general misery. 

Just like regular allergies, exercise-induced rhinitis is common among both "real" and recreational athletes -- whether they have an underlying nasal allergy or not (but it is more common in those who do have allergies), according to a 2006 report. And you're not imagining things: rhinitis symptoms are more common in the winter, the lead author of that study, Dr. William Silvers of the Allergy Asthma & Immunology Clinic of Colorado, said in an email. (Think of a skier's nose, he points out.) It's more common in people who exercise outdoors, but it can also happen indoors, Silvers says. 

Between 10 percent and 20 percent of Americans suffer from allergic rhinitis, but, strangely, 40 percent of endurance athletes suffer from the condition. And while it's well-known that exercise can trigger asthma, hives and anaphylaxis (a life-threatening, whole-body allergic reaction -- that's right: in rare cases, exercise can and does kill), it's not well-understood what triggers the annoying allergy-like symptoms. But the latest theory medical research is narrowing in on is, perhaps unsurprisingly, pollution. In particular, nitrogen dioxide -- found in car exhaust -- has been the subject of a handful of recent studies involving allergies and athletes. 

Of course, runners aren't the only ones who have respiratory problems triggered by physical exertion -- swimmers, divers, boxers, skiers and figure skaters get similar symptoms. Interestingly, exercise-induced asthma is disproportionately seen in Winter Olympic athletes, reported a 2010 New York Times blog post.

Exercise-induced rhinitis won't cause you any real harm -- it's more of a nuisance that, as Silvers phrases it,"snots up your nose and clothes!" But if you regularly work out and your nose is really bugging you, a nasal spray -- specifically, ipratroprium bromide nasal spray -- can help. If the irritation is in your lungs, Silvers recommends using an albuterol inhaler before exercise, and as needed after that.

Readers, do you ever experience allergy or asthma symptoms while working out? How bad is it, and how have you handled it? Here's one suggestion from a wise-guy Twitter follower of mine: 

 

Related: 

Running a marathon can break your butt

5 weird things that happen to marathoners' bodies

Are you running yourself to death?

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