The nose is a surprisingly versatile organ, whose duties extend beyond the “mere” sense of smell. When working normally, the nose plays host to up to eight quarts of air every minute, all of which is warmed and moistened by the nasal passages to make it “palatable” to the sensitive tissue of the lungs. The nose also traps various particles and potential invaders, and keeps them from infiltrating further.
Like any part of the body, the nose can fall prey to various conditions while carrying out its functions. Though benign, most of these ailments can still prove burdensome and disruptive, like congestion or a runny nose. One annoyance in particular, a burning sensation in the nose, can be remarkably persistent and sometimes painful. This guide will explain the common causes of a burning nose and help offer advice for getting your sniffer back on track.
What Causes a Burning Nose?
The sensation of a burning nose has its root in irritation. Something has irritated the nasal passages and caused inflammation or tissue destruction. The source of this provocation will usually dictate what kinds of other symptoms can be expected.
Changes in Weather
Burning noses are more common as the weather shifts, because the nose is sensitive to changes in ambient moisture due to the role it plays in mucus production. Dry temperatures on either end of the spectrum can deprive the nose of much of its moisture and lead to the nasal lining drying out. Like dry skin elsewhere on the body, dried nasal passages can become inflamed or cracked, which can cause a burning sensation—nose bleeds are also more common under these conditions. Temperature changes can make blood vessels contract or dilate and cause a burning sensation due to alterations in blood flow.
Some medications can provoke a burning sensation in the nose because the method of administration proves irritating (like a nasal spray), the medication can dry out the nose as a side effect, or the medication does something that affects blood flow through the nasal passages. Common examples include aspirin, ibuprofen, and some blood pressure medications.
A burning sensation in the nose is commonly associated with allergic rhinitis, also known as hay fever. When a triggering allergen enters the nasal passage, it sets off an immune reaction that causes inflammation of the nasal passages (hence the burning), congestion, runny nose, watery eyes, itchy nose and/or eyes, and probably a good deal of sneezing. Allergic rhinitis can be seasonal, as it can be a response to pollen, or it can be persistent and get triggered by things like dust or pet dander. It’s not uncommon for people with allergic rhinitis to have multiple triggers, so your doctor may want to perform an allergy test so they can get properly identified.
Inhaling certain particles can trigger reactions similar to those of an allergy, but do not actually involve the immune system. Instead, the symptoms are the result of the substance itself irritating the nasal passages, rather than your body’s defenses getting over-eager. Potential irritants include the obvious: smoke, sand or coal dust, cleaning fumes, etc., but also include less obvious culprits like perfumes or body spray. A strong scent is still a chemical, so it can still cause irritation and make your nose burn. Since the cause of these symptoms is an irritant, your eyes should not normally be affected—which is one way to distinguish the problem from an allergy.
This is basically a more extreme “inhaled irritant.” Certain chemicals on their own, or through prolonged exposure (like cocaine use) can damage or destroy the mucosal lining and lead to a chronic burning sensation, increased nose bleeds, heightened risk of infection, and similar problems.
Given that your nose is one of the bulwarks against pathogens entering your body, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the nasal lining is prone to getting infected. The common cold, for instance, is a type of nasal infection. There are numerous viral, bacterial, and fungal agents that can cause a burning sensation in the nose as part of the immune response, and the related symptoms will all sound familiar: a stuffy or runny nose, sneezing, and a buildup of excess phlegm that drips down the back of the nose into the throat. An important distinction is that, like with the symptoms provoked by an irritant, infections do not normally cause your nose or eyes to become itchy. Depending on how the infection is being handled, you may also experience a fever.
This is more common among infants and small children, for hopefully obvious reasons. A lodged foreign body may be small enough to escape notice and can sometimes not fully obstruct the nasal passage, so visual inspection or checking breathing isn’t a surefire way to confirm their presence. In addition to a burning sensation and potential difficulty breathing through the affected nostril, a foreign body can cause nosebleeds, infection, and discomfort. Foreign objects are potentially serious since, depending on size and shape, they can suffocate a child if it dislodges into the airway.
Treating a Burning Nose
Over-the-counter or prescription nasal sprays can be used for a variety of different causes, but the exact spray will depend on what the underlying issue is:
Saline sprays can help hydrate the nose and possibly rinse out irritants
Corticosteroid sprays can reduce inflammation (but can also dry out the nose)
Antihistamine sprays are good for treating most allergies
It is important not to use sprays or oral decongestants more than the supplier recommends. Excessive use can end up causing excess irritation to the nose and exacerbate the problem.
If your burning nose is a side effect of a medication, you can talk to your doctor about alternatives. It is not a good idea to deviate from a prescribed medication schedule without your doctor’s approval, since there can be undesired side effects, plus the aggravation of the problem being medicated in the first place.
Prevention is important as well. Although not always possible depending on the trigger, taking steps to reduce your exposure to known allergens or irritants can help keep your nose free of pain and congestion.
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