What’s a runny nose?
A runny nose is mucus dripping or “running” out of your nose. It can be caused by colder outdoor temperatures, a cold, flu or allergies.
“Rhinorrhea,” a term often used alongside the phrase “runny nose,” is the thin, mostly clear discharge you might see. Another term you might often see is “Rhinitis.” Rhinitis is the inflammation of your nasal tissues.
When a cold virus or an allergen such as pollen or dust first enters your body, it irritates the lining of your nose and sinuses (or air-filled pockets around the face) and your nose starts to make a lot of clear mucus. This mucus traps the bacteria, virus or allergens and helps flush them out of your nose and sinuses.
After two or three days, the mucus may change color and become white or yellow. Sometimes the mucus may also turn a greenish color. All of this is normal and does not mean an infection is present.
How does your nose work to protect your body?
Your breathing process starts in your nose. Air gets into your lungs through your nose. It helps filter, humidify, warm or cool the air that comes through it so that the air that gets to your lungs is clean.
A special lining of mucosa, or a moist tissue, covers the area inside your nose and consists of many mucus-producing glands. As bacteria, allergens, dust or other harmful particles come into the nose, the mucus traps them. Mucus contains antibodies, or enzymes, which kill unwanted bacteria and viruses.
The mucosa lining also includes cilia, tiny hair-like structures. The cilia are continually in motion and move the collected harmful particles and the mucus that they are trapped in through your nose into the back of your throat. It’s then swallowed and destroyed by the acid in your stomach. Mucus and particles can also be coughed up or sneezed out.
When outdoor temperatures turn cold, the pace of this process slows down. Many times, the mucus stays in your nose and then drips or dribbles out.
Why is mucus an important part of the airway system?
Mucus is needed to keep your airway moist and working properly. Not only does mucus stop harmful particles from getting into your lungs, but it also contains antibodies to help destroy bacteria. If too much mucus is produced, your body wants to get rid of it, leading to coughing and spitting the extra mucus out and blowing it out of your nose.
Why does a runny nose happen? What causes a runny nose?
Your runny nose may have one or more of several causes. Possible causes include:
- Cold temperatures.
- Common cold.
- Gustatory rhinitis, a form of nonallergic rhinitis that causes a runny nose when you eat certain foods.
Is a runny nose a symptom of COVID-19?
Yes: “congestion or runny nose.” Other common symptoms include:
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing.
- Fever or chills.
- New loss of taste or smell.
- Muscle or body aches.
- Sore throat.
- Nausea or vomiting.
What other symptoms may come with a runny nose?
Postnasal drip is a side effect of too much mucus. It occurs when the mucus goes down the back of your throat and is swallowed, which may lead to a cough or sore throat.
Sometimes, a runny nose and a congested, or stuffy, nose are seen together. Congestion occurs when the tissues lining the nose become swollen and make it difficult to breathe. The swelling is due to inflamed blood vessels. Mucus may begin to run out of your nose.
A runny nose due to a cold or flu may be accompanied by fatigue, sore throat, cough, facial pressure and sometimes fever.
A runny nose due to allergies may be accompanied by sneezing and itchy, watery eyes.
Can a runny nose cause a sore throat?
Can a runny nose cause an ear infection?
Rhinitis, the inflammation of your nasal tissues, can sometimes have complications including a middle ear infection.
Is a runny nose contagious?
A runny nose itself is not contagious, but it is often a symptom of a condition like the common cold, which can be passed from person to person.
Care and Treatment
How do I stop my runny nose?
Your runny nose will likely stop on its own. Generally, it doesn’t need treatment. But, there are exceptions.
What kind of healthcare provider can treat my runny nose?
If treatment is necessary, your primary healthcare provider can help. If it turns out that your runny nose is a symptom of a more serious condition, your healthcare provider might refer you to an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist.
When should I contact a healthcare provider to treat a runny nose?
A runny nose will typically go away on its own. However, a healthcare provider should be contacted if:
- The symptoms continue for more than 10 days and there is no improvement.
- Symptoms are severe or unusual.
- Drainage from your young child’s nose comes from only one side and is green, bloody or foul-smelling, or if you have other reason to believe there may be a foreign object stuck in their nose.
Your healthcare provider will perform a physical examination to make sure the runny nose is not a symptom of a more serious condition.
How do I get rid of my runny nose? What medicines should I try?
Prescription medicines, such as antibiotics are not needed to treat a runny nose, which usually gets better on its own. Sometimes, an over-the-counter decongestant medicine may help adults, but might not be appropriate if you have certain conditions or take other medications. Check with your healthcare provider to see what over-the-counter medicines are appropriate for you.
Typically, the best treatment for a runny nose includes:
- Drink plenty of fluids, especially water.
- Use a saline nasal spray to help relieve symptoms. Limit the use of decongestant nasal sprays to no longer than a few days, as instructed on package labels.
- A cool-mist humidifier at your bedside can combat congestion worsened by dry winter air.
Unless recommended by your healthcare provider, don’t give over-the-counter cold medicines to a child under age four.
What treatment is recommended for a runny nose due to an allergy?
- Stay indoors when the pollen count is high, usually in the early morning and on windy days.
- Keep windows closed during allergy season, and use air conditioning whenever possible.
- Wear a dust mask if working outdoors. Change clothing and take a shower right away after coming indoors.
- Avoid contact with cats and dogs if you are sensitive to animal dander.
Also, there are many safe and effective over-the-counter medications available to help control allergy symptoms, such as nasal steroid sprays and oral antihistamines. If the symptoms are severe, your healthcare provider may recommend prescription medications, or refer you to an allergist for testing and targeted therapy.
What are some simple home remedies to treat a runny nose?
Over-the-counter saline (saltwater) drops can be gently squirted into your nostrils to loosen the mucus in your nose. The liquid and mucus can then be suctioned out of your nose with a rubber syringe, or bulb.
Other home remedies you can try include:
- Essential oils.
- Drinking hot teas.
- Facial steam.
- Hot shower.
- Neti pot.
- Spicy foods.
Can a runny nose be prevented?
Practicing good hygiene is important and can often help stop germs from spreading. A runny nose is a symptom of some contagious conditions. Here are some simple tips to stop such germs from spreading:
- Wash your hands often.
- Throw away used tissues after blowing or wiping your nose.
- Keep away from those who have colds or infections.
- Eat healthily and exercise regularly to help boost your immune system.
- Cough and sneeze into the inside of your elbow, not into your hand.
- Clean and disinfect common surfaces such as tables and countertops, toys, door handles and bathroom fixtures.
When to Call the Doctor
When does a runny nose need to be treated by a healthcare provider?
Again, your runny nose should go away on its own. However, if the symptoms are severe, they last more than 10 days, or if you’re taking care of a child whose drainage only comes from one side, gets green or blood or foul-smelling, then you should see a healthcare provider.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Who hasn’t had a runny nose? Getting a dripping or “runny” nose in the cold or when you have a cold, the flu or allergies is common. It usually doesn’t mean there’s an infection or something serious. Remember to use good hygiene practices to prevent a runny nose or similar issues. See a healthcare provider if your or your child’s runny nose seems unusual.