Blocked nose

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at December 9, 2015
StartSymptomsBlocked nose

A blocked nose is a common condition that nearly everyone experiences at some point. In most instances, there is no cause for alarm, as the problem will usually correct itself or be easily treated with an over-the-counter (OTC) remedy. Prolonged incidents of blockage, or congestion that repeatedly returns with no clear cause are concerning, and could be signs of a more serious condition.


Definition & Facts

A blocked or stuffy nose occurs when blood vessels in the nose become inflamed and the tissues lining the interior of the nose swell. This condition is known as Rhinitis, and it can be experienced on its own, or with other symptoms.

These other symptoms may include itchiness, congestion, nasal drainage and watery eyes. While these are the common causes, blockages may also be caused by obstructions in the nostrils or other physical issues.


The most common causes of a blocked nose are colds and allergies. Hormonal changes can cause rhinitis as well. It is common for pregnant women to suffer from a stuffy nose during their pregnancy, and some women also experience the same problem during their menstrual cycle. Allergic rhinitis can be related to food-based sensitivities or environmental allergens.

Non-allergic rhinitis is when a blockage happens, but no clear reason is apparent. This is referred to as vasomotor rhinitis and it can be caused by a number of factors. These include side effects from medication, as a reaction to consuming alcohol or after spending a period of time in exceptionally dry air. In many cases, neither the doctor nor the patient are able to determine the exact cause.

In addition, the blockage could also be from physical concerns like swollen tonsils, swollen turbinate or structural problems within the nasal cavity. This is often triggered by the overuse of nasal sprays or as a result of cosmetic surgery, especially when there has been more than one rhinoplasty performed.

A deviated septum is a common cause of nose blockage as well. In people with this condition, the wall separating the nostrils is not aligned correctly. This makes one side smaller than the other. When the problem is severe it can be difficult, or impossible, to breathe through the narrowest nasal passage. The smaller nostril may become irritated and blocked over time and the irritation could spread to the other nostril as well.

When to see a doctor

Since most cases do go away on their own, many people feel as if going to the doctor for a stuffy nose is unnecessary. Most people will continue to treat the issue on their own, at home, with OTC medications.

This method can be dangerous if the problem is persistent, or not related to colds or allergies. Nasal sprays can cause further damage to the sensitive nasal tissue and may make the body unresponsive to its use in the future. They can also increase the risk of developing a sinus infection. Decongestants, like allergy medications and cold medicine, can raise the blood pressure in some sensitive individuals and may lead to issues like weight gain or fatigue.

It is important to see the doctor if the congestion has persisted for two weeks or more, earlier if a fever or a green discharge is accompanying the stuffiness. This type of condition should also be checked if it makes breathing too difficult, is interrupting normal sleep patterns or if the blockage starts a short time after a head injury and is accompanied by any nasal drainage.

Treatment & Therapy

Treatment varies according to the cause and the severity of the blockage. When allergies are the cause, the sensible use of allergy medication and avoidance of what is causing the reaction are usually enough to control the problem.

Adhesive strips that help to open the nostrils may make it easier to sleep during at night until the sinuses finally clear. Corticosteroid sprays may also be prescribed, particularly if polyps are also present. Nasal polyps are a benign growth that can block the nasal passages and are often seen in people with allergies and asthma. If an infection has been diagnosed, an antibiotic will be prescribed.

Rinsing the sinuses with a saline spray may help to relieve dry nasal tissue and flush away allergens or mucus. Because these sprays are only saline, they do not have the same risks as medicated sprays. Capsaicin, the component that makes chili peppers hot make help to relieve some chronically blocked noses. It is often available in supplements, or if people like spicy foods, they can add chili peppers to their diet. In instances where the blockages is caused by a physical condition, surgery may be required to correct the issue.

Surgery is used to correct a deviated septum, when the problem is swollen turbinate and when the tonsils are inflamed and need to be removed. Damaged, bent or twisted noses, as well as nasal passages that are too small may also require surgery. This can be congenital or from an accident or a previous cosmetic procedure. Removal of nasal polyps is also an example of treating a blocked nose with surgery.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

Working to prevent the problem may be a better solution than looking for effective treatment after the blockage appears. There are many ways to reduce nasal blockage and irritation. Drinking plenty of water keeps the body better hydrated and prevents the nasal passages from becoming too dry.

Avoiding cigarette smoke, not wearing perfume and not using fragranced laundry detergents or cleaning products can help to prevent irritation. Using humidifiers to keep the interior air moist, particularly during the winter months will help keep nasal tissue moist, and can help make it easier to increase drainage if the nose does become congested.

The use of essential oils like peppermint or eucalyptus may increase the effectiveness of the humidifier. Taking hot showers and breathing steam from bowl or pot of hot water can be substituted for the humidifier, if one is not available. Essential oils can be used in the pot of hot water, or can be added to boiling water on the stove to improve air quality and relieve the nasal tissue as well.

Avoiding animals, foods or flowers or basically anything else that increases the risk of an allergic reaction will also reduce the frequency of blockage.

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