Sensitive Nose (Nasal Sensitivity) – Meaning, Symptoms and Causes

Sneezing, nasal itching and a runny nose may be symptoms of many different nasal conditions. When it is triggered by otherwise harmless substances which does not affect others, then this may be described as a sensitive nose. This term may also be applied to people who detect and react to odors that are otherwise not a problem for others.

Meaning of a Sensitive Nose

The nose is an organ of respiration and a sensory organ. It allows air to move into the airways and down to the lungs. Similarly, air being exhaled from the lungs may also exit through the nose. During inhalation, the nose filters and warms air. This is the respiratory function of the nose. Specialized receptors within the nasal lining can also detect odors. The sense of smell also assists with taste.

When the air is filled with dust or other irritant substances, it can elicit the sneeze reflex. Air is pushed out of the nose with force to expel these irritants. Similary if the nasal lining is inflamed, like with an infection, the sneeze reflex may be initiated as the lining is constantly irritated. It also assists with pushing out excess mucus that accumulates as a result of nasal inflammation.

The term ‘sensitive nose’ may is a common way of describing several different phenomena relating to the nose. Firstly it may refer to premature and excessive triggering of the sneeze reflex where even small amounts of irritants can be a problem. Secondly it also refers to the ability to detect smells that others may not. Similarly it may apply to an aversion to smells that others may not find offensive.

Symptoms of a Sensitive Nose

Although a sensitive nose is not a specific medical condition, it may be used to describe various different nasal conditions. Therefore the following signs and symptoms may occur:

  • Sneezing
  • Runny nose
  • Itchy nose
  • Burning in the nose
  • Redness of the nose
  • Nasal congestion

In addition, there may be several other signs and symptoms that can accompany these nasal symptoms. This includes watery eyes (excessive tearing), burning or pain in the eyes, redness of the eyes, nasal pain, loss of sense of smell, reduced sense of taste and a nasal tone to the voice.

Causes of a Sensitive Nose

A sensitive nose is usually linked to different types of rhinitis. The term rhinitis means inflammation of the nasal cavity. Most of the time it is due to allergies or infections. However, there is another broad category referred to as non-allergic non-infectious rhinitis (NANIR). This type of rhinitis includes all the other types of rhinitis excluding allergies and infections. With NANIR, nasal symptoms may arise from environmental (like weather, smoke and air pollution), foods, drugs and hormonal factors.

Read more on types of rhinitis.

It is important to note that some people may have an acute sense of smell. This is known as hyperosmia and may be linked to certain genetic factors. It can also arise when a person becomes more dependent on the sense of smell than normal. Here there is no inflammation of the nose despite the nose being referred to as sensitive. Sometimes certain odors or the perceived intensity of odors may be due to psychogenic factors.


Allergic rhinitis is one of the common causes of a sensitive nose. Sneezing is a characteristic feature of this condition. It is easily triggered by a host of substances, such as small amounts of dust, pollen or even with strong fragrances. These triggers are not the cause. Allergic rhinitis is due to hypersensitivity of the immune system, which is commonly referred to as an allergy.


Infections of the nose are common and usually acute. It arises suddenly, causes intense symptoms like a runny nose and sneezing, and resolves in a short period of time. The common cold is one example of a viral nasal infection. Bacteria are also common microbes to cause infectious rhinitis. During the time of the infection, a person may mistaken the symptoms for nose sensitivity although the sense of smell is usually impaired.


There are a number of different substances that can irritate any person’s nose even without an allergic reaction. Smoke, airborne dust, strong fragrances and certain gases can be perceived as overbearing or even unpleasant odors, lead to a runny nose or trigger sneezing. Some people are more sensitive to these irritants than others, despite the lack of an allergy.


Cold and dry air can irritate and person’s nose but some people are more sensitive than others. These individuals may even experience rhinitis with changes in the climatic conditions. It appears that in these cases the blood flow in the nose is affected to a greater degree than would be expected. This type of rhinitis is known as vasomotor rhinitis. Apart from climate, other factors can also trigger vasomotor rhinitis.


Some people may have a nasal reaction to certain foods. For example, spicy foods may trigger a runny nose and sneezing. This is known as gustatory rhinitis. As with other environmental triggers of non-allergic non-infectious rhinitis, any person may react to these triggers. However, people with rhinitis may experience intense symptoms and react much faster than most individuals.


Alterations in hormone levels may also lead to nasal symptoms and nasal inflammation (rhinitis). This is seen with the use of hormone contraceptives (birth control pill) in some women. It can also occur in pregnancy due to the elevated levels of certain pregnancy hormones. Sometimes these hormones may aggravate pre-existing allergic rhinitis rather than causing rhinitis on its own.


Some drugs can cause rhinitis as a side effect or worsen pre-existing rhinitis. Drug-induced rhinitis may occur with high blood pressure medication, anti-anxiety drugs, erectile dysfunction (ED) drugs and with certain anti-inflammatory drugs. As mentioned above, drug-induced rhinitis may possibly be linked to the use of certain hormone contraceptives, although only some sensitive individuals may be affected.

Anther important drug-related phenomena resulting in nasal inflammation is rhinitis medicamentosa. It is also commonly referred to as rebound rhinitis or chemical rhinitis. In this case a person may be using anti-inflammatory medication for other types of rhinitis. When the medication is discontinued the rhinitis may return and sometimes even be worse than the original condition which was being treated.

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