What is nasal congestion?
Nasal congestion refers to obstructed (blocked) breathing through the nose. It is a common symptom of many different medical conditions.
In most cases, nasal congestion causes nothing more serious than discomfort. It can cause feeding problems in babies and sleep problems in children and adults. Nasal congestion is also known as a stuffy nose or congested nose.
How is nasal congestion diagnosed?
Doctors diagnose nasal congestion based on your symptoms and a physical exam. Your doctor will examine your nose, ears and throat to determine the cause of the congestion.
An otolaryngologist (ENT physician) may examine your nose using a flexible light called an endoscope.
Sometimes, a CT scan is required if a physical obstruction is observed or suspected.
In rare cases, a doctor may use tests including an X-ray or throat culture (test to examine substances in the back of the throat) to rule out other medical issues that could be causing the congestion.
What are the possible causes of nasal congestion?
Inflammation (swelling) of the blood vessels in the tissues lining the nose causes nasal congestion. Increased mucus secretions (discharge) in the nose can also cause stuffiness. In rare cases, a tumor or polyp may lead to this symptom.
Conditions that may cause swelling or increased nasal secretions include:
- Allergies/exposure to dust, pollen and animal dander
- Enlarged adenoids (soft tissue located behind the nose)
- Infections including the common cold, flu or sinus infection
- Irritants including fragrances and tobacco smoke
- Medications such as drugs for high blood pressure
- Structural problems in areas of the head and neck that make breathing through the nose more difficult
- Changes in temperature and humidity (especially dry, cold winters, and forced air heating)
- Use of supplemental oxygen
Care and Treatment
How is nasal congestion managed or treated?
Medical providers usually recommend nasal saline products to reduce nasal dryness, and use of a humidifier in colder months. For babies and young children, a bulb suction device helps clear mucus.
Nasal corticosteroid sprays and oral antihistamines are often recommended for adults, and are widely available over the counter.
Always discuss use of medication with your medical provider. Even over-the-counter medications can interact with your other medications, and in some conditions, use of these products is not advised.
In other cases, additional prescription medications are recommended.
Sometimes nasal congestion is treated surgically, to correct anatomical defects.
Steps you can take at home to relieve congestion include:
- Apply adhesive strips to nose to open nasal passages.
- Clear nasal secretions in babies with a nasal bulb syringe.
- Drink fluids to thin any nasal secretions.
- Keep your head elevated.
- Remove nasal secretions with a nasal wash or saline spray.
- Use a humidifier to moisten the air.
When to Call the Doctor
When should I call the doctor?
Contact your doctor if your nasal congestion:
- Includes discharge that is green, yellow, or consistently contains blood
- Is accompanied by a fever
- Lasts more than 10 days
If you have a newborn, contact your pediatrician if your baby has nasal congestion that interferes with his or her ability to nurse or take a bottle.
Call your pediatrician if your child has nasal congestion affecting feeding or sleep.