Nasal Decongestant

Nasal decongestants are a type of medicine that helps provide relief for stuffy, congested noses (nasal congestion). They work by narrowing and reducing the swelling in the blood vessels and tissues in your nose. Nasal decongestants come as pills, liquids, drops and nasal sprays.

A person uses a nasal spray to relieve their stuffy nose (nasal congestion).
Nasal spray is one type of nasal decongestant.

What is a nasal decongestant?

A nasal decongestant is a type of medicine that helps relieve a stuffy nose (nasal congestion). Nasal congestion is a symptom of many common health conditions, including:

Nasal decongestants come in many different forms. The active ingredient in most nasal decongestants is pseudoephedrine or oxymetazoline.


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What does a nasal decongestant do?

Nasal decongestants provide temporary relief for blocked or stuffy noses. Nasal congestion makes it difficult to breathe through your nose. You may start breathing through your mouth because you can’t take air in through your nose. Nasal congestion also often causes a runny nose. Nasal decongestants help clear the stuffiness and runniness.

How do nasal decongestants work?

When your body senses an invader such as a cold or flu virus, it immediately sends extra blood to the blood vessels in your nose to help fight it. This causes the blood vessels and tissues in your nose to swell up, making you feel stuffed up.

Nasal decongestants narrow the swelling in the blood vessels in your nose. They also reduce the swelling of your nasal tissues, which opens your airways and makes it easier to breathe. Nasal decongestants don’t treat the cause of your symptoms or speed up your recovery. But they can provide short-term symptom relief.


What are the different types of nasal decongestants?

Nasal decongestants are available in several different forms. Most are available without a prescription. Over-the-counter (OTC) nasal decongestants include:

  • Pills (tablets or capsules).
  • Liquids or syrups.
  • Nasal decongestant sprays.
  • Nasal drops.

Pharmacies and retail stores sell nasal decongestants as standalone medicines or in a combination form that contains a pain reliever and/or an antihistamine. Examples of nasal decongestants include:

  • Pseudoephedrine: Sudafed 12/24 Hour®, Children’s Sudafed Nasal Decongestant®.
  • Oxymetazoline: Afrin® Nasal Spray, Zicam® Nasal Spray.

Examples of combination nasal decongestants include:

  • Advil Cold and Sinus®: Contains ibuprofen and pseudoephedrine.
  • Claritin-D®: Contains loratadine and pseudoephedrine.
  • Tylenol Sinus Severe Congestion Daytime®: Contains acetaminophen, guaifenesin and pseudoephedrine.
  • Zyrtec-D®: Contains cetirizine and pseudoephedrine.

How do you take nasal decongestants?

Read the directions on the medication’s label before you take a nasal decongestant. These directions will tell you how much of the medicine to take and how often you can take it. You should use most nasal decongestants between one and four times a day. Don’t use more than one kind of nasal decongestant at a time.

Take only the amount shown on the label. It can be dangerous to take more than directed. Taking more medicine won’t make the drug work quicker or better.

If you’re taking a liquid form medication, use the measuring spoon or cup that comes with it. Don’t use a household spoon to measure the dose.

Talk to a healthcare provider before taking a nasal decongestant if you’re taking any prescription medicine. If you’re taking other medications, check the labels for similar active ingredients. This will help you avoid taking too much of any one medicine.

You shouldn’t use decongestant nasal sprays or drops for more than one week at a time. Using these types of medications for too long can make your stuffiness worse. You can also develop a type of decongestant rebound called rhinitis medicamentosa. This condition occurs when you overuse nasal decongestant sprays. It causes inflammation and irritation of your nasal passages.


Do I need to worry about any interactions while taking a nasal decongestant?

Nasal decongestants can interact with many other medications. They can increase or decrease the effects of other medicines. If you’re taking any of the following medications, talk to a healthcare provider before taking a decongestant:

Many decongestants are combined with pain relievers or antihistamines in an “all-in-one” formula. Each of the active ingredients in these combination medicines can cause interactions with other medicines. Don’t take a combination decongestant if you’re taking other medicines that contain the same active ingredients. It can be dangerous to take too much of any one ingredient.

What are the side effects of decongestants?

Nasal decongestants usually don’t cause any side effects. If you do experience side effects, they’re typically mild. Side effects may include:

Who shouldn’t take nasal decongestants?

If you have unmanaged high blood pressure, don’t take nasal decongestants. They can raise your blood pressure even if you do have it managed. Talk to a healthcare provider before taking a nasal decongestant if you have any of the following health conditions:

Can I take a nasal decongestant during my pregnancy?

Researchers aren’t sure if nasal decongestants are safe to take during pregnancy. Ask your healthcare provider if it’s safe to take a decongestant while you’re pregnant. You should also avoid decongestants if you're breastfeeding (chestfeeding).

Is there a safe nasal decongestant for kids?

Children between the ages of 6 and 11 can use children’s nasal decongestants for no more than five days. But children younger than 6 years old shouldn’t use decongestants. Instead, you can clear your child’s stuffy nose by using:

  • A bulb syringe to remove mucus from their nose.
  • Saline spray to help loosen mucus.
  • A cool-mist humidifier in your child’s bedroom.
  • Ibuprofen (Advil®) or acetaminophen (Tylenol®) to lower a fever.

What questions should I ask my healthcare provider?

Additional questions you may want to ask a healthcare provider include:

  • What’s the best nasal decongestant?
  • Will my current medications interact with a nasal decongestant?
  • Do I need a prescription nasal decongestant?
  • Are combination nasal decongestants safe during my pregnancy?

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Nasal congestion is a common symptom of many health conditions. While typically not serious, congestion can be uncomfortable when you can’t breathe through your nose. That’s where nasal decongestants come in. Decongestants can help clear the stuffiness and runniness. Most adults can safely take decongestants to clear up a stuffy nose. But talk to your healthcare provider if you’re pregnant or have certain health conditions before using an over-the-counter decongestant.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed on 04/20/2023.

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