What is nasal congestion (stuffy nose)?
Nasal congestion happens when something irritates tissues lining the inside of your nose. The irritation sets off a chain reaction of inflammation, swelling and mucus production, making it hard to take in air through your nose. Nasal congestion typically clears after a few days, but congestion that lasts for a week or more may be a sign of an infection. Left untreated, nasal congestion may cause sinusitis, nasal polyps or middle ear infections.
How does nasal congestion affect my body?
A stuffy nose is nothing to sneeze at. If your nose is congested or stuffy, you may:
- Have trouble breathing through your nose.
- Have mucus flowing from your nose, also known as a runny nose.
- Start breathing through your mouth because you can’t take in air through your nose. This is mouth breathing.
- Babies who have nasal congestion may have trouble nursing or taking a bottle.
Sometimes, nasal congestion is the first sign your body is fighting a viral or bacterial infection. Rarely, a tumor or polyp in your nose may make your nose feel congested.
Who does it affect?
At any given time, about 12% of the U.S. population has nasal congestion.
Symptoms and Causes
What are nasal congestion symptoms?
Nasal congestion may cause additional symptoms such as:
What triggers nasal congestion?
The short answer is many things trigger nasal congestion. That’s because your nose is on the front line when it comes to protecting your body from intruders. Your nose takes in air that may carry dirt, particles and allergens. The inside of your nose houses a battalion of hair and cilia (tiny hair-like structures) that snare intruders, sending them to your nostrils. When you sneeze or blow your nose, you’re kicking intruders out of your system. Sometimes, your nose hair and cilia don’t catch all intruders. When that happens, the tissue lining the inside of your nose becomes inflamed and starts to swell. Then, your immune system kicks in, flooding your nose with mucus that’s intended to wash away intruders. Swollen nasal tissues and mucus combine to block your nose, making your condition worse.
What are the most common causes of nasal congestion?
Nasal congestion often happens with conditions such as rhinitis. There are two kinds of rhinitis — allergic rhinitis (hay fever) and nonallergic rhinitis.
Allergic rhinitis or hay fever is how your body reacts to allergens. Allergens are tiny particles in the air. Common allergens include:
- Pollen: When trees and plants bloom in the spring, summer and fall, they produce pollen that may make its way to your nose, setting off an allergic reaction.
- Dust mites: Even the cleanest environments may have dust mites that live in carpeting, furniture and bedding.
- Mold: Mold sends out spores that may cause allergic reactions.
- Pet dander: Some people are very allergic to dander from furry friends.
Nonallergic rhinitis — and nasal congestion — happens when inflammation makes fluid buildup in your nasal tissues, making them swell. This inflammation may happen because you have a viral illness or you’ve been exposed to certain triggers. Triggers may be:
- Environmental: Stress, exposure to smoke, paint fumes or spicy food are examples of substances that can cause nasal congestion.
- Medications: You can develop nasal congestion if you take certain medications for high blood pressure or pain.
- Hormonal: Hormonal changes like going through puberty or being pregnant may trigger nasal congestion.
- Infections: Sinus infections (sinusitis) or the common cold may cause nasal congestion.
- Enlarged adenoids: Adenoids are glands located just behind your nasal passage. They help trap germs. Sometimes, adenoids swell, causing nasal congestion.
Diagnosis and Tests
How do healthcare providers diagnose nasal congestion?
Healthcare providers diagnose nasal congestion by evaluating your symptoms and checking your nose, ears and throat. They may do more tests to rule out other potential causes such as:
- Throat culture: This test checks for specific bacteria in your throat. Providers do this test by swiping the back of your throat with a long cotton swab.
- Computed tomography (CT) scan: Your provider may order a CT scan to look for obstructions in your nose.
- Nasal endoscopy: Your provider may use a special camera to look inside your nose.
Management and Treatment
How do healthcare providers treat nasal congestion?
Providers treat nasal congestion based on the specific cause. For example, if you have nasal congestion because you’re allergic to cats, you have a form of allergic rhinitis. Avoiding cats and taking medication to control your symptoms may ease your condition.
If your congestion is a form of nonallergic rhinitis, you may be able to manage your condition by identifying what triggers congestion and by taking medication to control symptoms. Here are some medications or other treatments providers may recommend:
Treatments for nonallergic rhinitis
- Saline spray or rinse: Saline solution in a spray or rinse moisturizes the inside of your nose and washes out mucus.
- Antihistamines: This medication helps calm your immune system’s reaction to intruders like allergens.
- Corticosteroid nasal sprays: This medication helps with inflammation.
- Ipratropium bromide spray: This spray may help with runny noses.
Treatments for allergic rhinitis
People with allergic rhinitis may take antihistamines or corticosteroids to soothe inflamed nasal tissues. Here are other treatments for congestion caused by allergic rhinitis:
- Decongestant nasal sprays: This treatment may relieve your stuffy nose. Don’t use decongestant nasal sprays for more than three days. Using them longer than three days can potentially worsen your nasal congestion.
- Anticholinergic nasal sprays: This treatment may reduce mucus in your nose.
Can I prevent nasal congestion?
Many things may cause nasal congestion. You may not be able to prevent the condition but you can reduce how often you have this problem:
- If certain seasons make your nose feel stuffy, ask your healthcare provider for information about seasonal allergies. They’ll help identify potential allergens, ways to avoid allergens and treatment for symptoms.
- Protect yourself from viral infections like the common cold and flu.
Outlook / Prognosis
What can I expect if I have nasal congestion?
You can expect to have nasal congestion off and on throughout your life. Healthcare providers can’t cure the condition but they can treat symptoms and recommend self-care to ease symptoms.
How do you clear a stuffy nose?
Here are ways you can clear nasal congestion:
- Drink lots of water and clear fluids. Fluids help thin mucus and ease congestion.
- Use a saline nasal spray or wash to flush out mucus.
- Apply adhesive strips to your nose to open nasal passages.
- Use humidifiers to moisten the air at your home and/or workplace.
- Ask your healthcare provider to recommend over-the-counter medication that treats nasal congestion. Be sure they know about all medications you take so they can recommend medications that won’t interact with your existing medications.
- If nasal congestion keeps your baby from nursing or taking a bottle, use a nasal bulb syringe to clear mucus from their nose.
When should I seek care?
Nasal congestion typically clears within a few days. If it doesn’t, you may develop a bacterial infection. You should seek care if you have the following symptoms:
- Your nasal congestion lasts more than 10 days.
- Mucus coming from your nose is green, yellow or has blood in it.
- You have a fever.
- Your newborn baby has nasal congestion that keeps them from nursing or taking a bottle.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Nasal congestion is a common problem with many causes. Many people have seasonal allergies that send their immune systems into overdrive — and their noses into a state of stuffiness. Your nose can clog if you spend time around smoke or paint fumes, are under stress, are pregnant or are going through puberty. Nasal congestion may make you feel miserable for a few days before your nose settles down. Talk to your healthcare provider if your nose stays stuffy for more than 10 days. They’ll check for infection. Better yet, they’ll recommend ways you can clear out congestion and breathe easy.
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