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What is Nasal Congestion?
Nasal congestion or “stuffy nose” occurs when nasal and adjacent tissues and blood vessels become swollen with excess fluid, causing a “stuffy” feeling. Nasal congestion may or may not be accompanied by a nasal discharge or “runny nose.”
Nasal congestion usually is just an annoyance for older children and adults. But nasal congestion can be serious in infants, who might have a hard time nursing or breathing as a result.
Nasal congestion is marked by:
- a stuffy or runny nose
- sinus pain
- mucus buildup
- swollen nasal tissues
Home remedies may be enough to alleviate nasal congestion, particularly if it is brought on by the common cold. However, if you experience chronic (long-term) congestion, you should seek medical treatment.
Causes of Nasal Congestion
Nasal congestion can be caused by anything that irritates or inflames the nasal tissues. Infections — such as colds, influenza or sinusitis allergies and various irritants, such as tobacco smoke, may all cause a runny nose. Some people have a chronically runny nose for no apparent reason a condition called nonallergic rhinitis or vasomotor rhinitis (VMR).
Less commonly, nasal congestion can be caused by polyps or a tumor. Other potential causes of nasal congestion include:
- Acute sinusitis
- Bright lights
- Chronic sinusitis
- Churg-Strauss syndrome
- Cluster headache
- Cold temperature
- Common cold
- Decongestant nasal spray overuse
- Deviated septum
- Drug addiction
- Dry air
- Dust mite allergy
- Enlarged adenoids
- Food allergy
- Foreign body in the nose
- Hay fever
- High blood pressure medications
- Hormonal changes
- Influenza (flu)
- Latex allergy
- Milk allergy
- Mold allergy
- Nasal polyps
- Nonallergic rhinitis
- Occupational asthma
- Other infections
- Peanut allergy
- Pet allergy
- Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)
- Shellfish allergy
- Soy allergy
- Spicy foods
- Thyroid problems
- Tobacco smoke
- Wegener’s granulomatosis
- Wheat allergy
Home Care for Nasal Congestion
Finding ways to keep mucus thin will help it drain from your nose and sinuses and relieve your symptoms. Drinking plenty of clear fluids is one way to do this. You can also:
- Apply a warm, moist washcloth to your face several times a day.
- Inhale steam 2 – 4 times a day. One way to do this is to sit in the bathroom with the shower running. Do not inhale hot steam.
- Use a vaporizer or humidifier.
A nasal wash can help remove mucus from your nose.
- You can buy a saline spray at a drugstore or make one at home. To make one, use 1 cup of warm water, 1/2 a teaspoon of salt, and a pinch of baking soda.
- Use gentle saline nasal sprays 3 to 4 times per day.
Congestion is often worse when lying down. Keep upright, or at least keep the head elevated.
Some stores sell adhesive strips that can be placed on the nose. These help widen the nostrils, making breathing easier.
Medicines you can buy at the store without a prescription can help your symptoms.
- Decongestants are drugs that shrink and dry up your nasal passages. They may help dry up a runny or stuffy nose.
- Antihistamines are drugs that treat allergy symptoms. Some antihistamines make you drowsy so use with care.
- Nasal sprays can relieve stuffiness. Don’t use over-the-counter nasal sprays more often than 3 days on and 3 days off, unless told to by your doctor.
Many cough, allergy, and cold medicines you buy have more than one medicine inside. Read the labels carefully to make sure you don’t take too much of any one medicine. Ask your health care provide which cold medications are safe for you
If you have allergies:
- Your health care provider may also prescribe nasal sprays that treat allergy symptoms
- Learn how to avoid triggers that make allergies worse.
Medical Treatment for Nasal Congestion
Sometimes, home remedies are not enough to relieve congestion, particularly if your symptoms are caused by another health condition. In this case, prompt medical treatment may be needed, especially if your condition is painful and interfering with your everyday activities.
If you have or have had any of the following, see your doctor right away:
- congestion that has lasted longer than 10 days
- congestion that is accompanied by a high fever that has lasted more than three days
- green nasal discharge along with sinus pain and fever (You may have a bacterial infection.)
- a weakened immune system, asthma, or emphysema
- a recent head injury, and you are now having bloody nasal discharge or a constant flow of clear discharge
Once your doctor has determined the cause of chronic nasal congestion, he or she can then recommend a treatment plan. Treatment plans often include over-the-counter or prescription medication to resolve or alleviate symptoms.
Medications used to treat nasal congestion include:
- oral antihistamines to treat allergies, such as loratadine (Claritin) and cetirizine (Zyrtec)
- antihistamine-containing nasal sprays, such as azelastine (Astelin, Astepro)
- nasal steroids, such as mometasone (Asmanex Twisthaler) or fluticasone (Flovent Diskus, Flovent HFA)
- antibiotics (for infections, such as sinusitis)
- over-the-counter or prescription strength decongestants, such as Sudafed
If you have tumors or nasal polyps in your nasal passages or sinuses that are keeping mucus from draining out, your doctor may recommend surgery to remove the tumors and improve your symptoms.
Possible Complications of Nasal Congestion
Nasal congestion rarely causes major health problems. Symptoms usually improve right away with proper treatment.