What is a runny nose?
A runny nose is mucus being discharged, or “running,” or dripping, out of the nose. It can be caused by colder outdoor temperatures, or by the cold, flu, or allergies.
When a cold virus or an allergen, such as pollen or dust, first enters the body, it irritates the lining of the nose and sinuses, or air-filled pockets around the face, and the nose starts to make a lot of clear mucus. This mucus traps the bacteria, virus, or allergens and helps flush them out of the nose and sinuses.
After 2 or 3 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 the nose work to protect the body?
The breathing process starts in the nose. Air gets into the lungs through the nose. It helps filter, humidify, warm, or cool the air that comes through it, so that the air that gets to the lungs is clean.
A special lining of mucosa, or a moist tissue, covers the area inside the 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, or 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 the nose into the back of the throat. It is then swallowed and destroyed by the acid in the 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 the nose and then drips or dribbles out of the nose.
Why is mucus an important part of the airway system?
Mucus production is a normal and necessary part of the airway system. Mucus is needed to keep the airway moist and working properly. Not only does mucus stop harmful particles from getting into the lungs, but it also contains antibodies to help destroy bacteria. If too much mucus is produced, the body wants to get rid of it, leading to coughing and spitting the extra mucus out, and blowing it out of the nose.
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 the 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 the 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.
Care and Treatment
What can be done to relieve a runny nose?
Prescription medicine, such as antibiotics, is 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 the doctor to see what over-the-counter medicines are appropriate for you.
Typically, the best treatment for a runny nose includes:
- Rest as much as possible.
- Drink plenty of fluids, especially water.
- Use saline nasal spray to help relieve symptoms. Limit use of decongestant nasal sprays to no longer than a few days, as instructed on package labels.
- A cool-mist humidifier at the bedside can combat congestion worsened by dry, winter air.
What treatment is recommended for a runny nose due to an allergy?
- Stay indoors when 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 after coming indoors.
- Avoid contact with cats and dogs if you are sensitive to animal dander.
In addition, 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, a doctor may recommend prescription medications, or referral to an allergist, for testing and targeted therapy.
What are some simple home remedies to treat a runny nose?
Over-the-counter saline, or salt water, drops can be gently squirted into the nostrils to loosen the mucus in the nose. The liquid and mucus can then be suctioned out of the nose with a rubber syringe, or bulb.
Do over-the-counter medicines help treat a runny nose?
Every person is different and over-the-counter medicines may relieve the symptoms of a runny nose for some and not others. The best treatment for a runny nose includes eating healthy, drinking plenty of fluids, and resting as much as possible.
Unless prescribed by the doctor, do not give over-the-counter cold medicines to a child under age 4 years.
Can a runny nose be prevented?
Practicing good hygiene is important and often can help stop germs from spreading. Here are some simple tips:
- Wash hands often.
- Throw away used tissues after blowing or wiping the nose.
- Keep away from those who have colds or infections.
- Eat healthy and exercise regularly to help boost the immune system.
- Cough and sneeze into the inside of the elbow, not into the hand.
- Clean and disinfect common surfaces, such as tables and countertops, toys, door handles, and bathroom fixtures.
When to Call the Doctor
When should a doctor be called to treat a runny nose?
A runny nose will typically go away on its own. However, a doctor should be called if:
- The symptoms continue for more than 10 days and there is no improvement.
- Symptoms are severe or unusual.
- Drainage from a 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 the nose.
The doctor will perform a physical examination to make sure the runny nose is not a symptom of a more serious condition.