Nasal congestion

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at December 9, 2015
StartSymptomsNasal congestion

Nasal congestion, commonly referred to as a stuffy nose, can be uncomfortable and interfere with daily activities, including sleep. Most cases of nasal congestion resolve on their own within a few days. A stuffy nose that lasts longer than a week may be a symptom of an underlying health issue requiring medical treatment.


Definition & Facts

A stuffy nose is usually the result of swelling of the mucous membranes or a structural abnormality that blocks the nasal passages. Typical symptoms of nasal congestion include:

A stuffy nose resulting from illnesses such as a cold are usually a minor annoyance in adults and older children. The problem is a bigger concern for infants since they lack the ability to clear their nasal passages effectively. Congestion can also interfere with an infant’s ability to nurse or bottle feed.


Most cases of nasal congestion are due to sinus infections, colds, or flu. This type of congestion typically responds well to over-the-counter or home remedies and resolves within a few days. Other factors can lead to a chronic stuffy nose, including:

In some cases, a person may have a chronically runny nose with no apparent cause. This is referred to as vasomotor rhinitis or nonallergic rhinitis.

When to see a doctor

A runny nose that persists or doesn’t respond to home remedies or over-the-counter treatments may be an indication of a more serious medical condition. A medical professional should be consulted if any of the following occur:

Chronic nasal congestion can result in serious complications in very young children. It can interfere with a young infant’s ability to breathe and feed properly. Long-term congestions can even delay a child’s hearing and speech development.

Treatment & Therapy

A doctor will prescribe an appropriate treatment plan once the underlying cause of the congestion is identified. Treatment typically involves a combination of prescription and over-the-counter medications. Oral and nasal spray antihistamines, such as loratadine, cetirizine, and azelastine, are useful in treating stuffy noses related to allergies.

Nasal steroids, such as fluticasone and mometasone, can help reduce inflammation in the sinus tissues. Antibiotics may be required if the congestion is due to an underlying bacterial sinus infection. Over-the-counter pain relievers can help relief the headache and sinus pain that accompanies nasal congestion. Oral and nasal decongestants, such as phenylephrine, pseudoephedrine, and oxymetazoline may provide temporary relief from a stuffy nose.

It is important to consult a physician before taking any oral or nasal decongestant. Oral decongestants should not be taken for more than a week without consulting a doctor. Nasal decongestant sprays should never be taken for more than three days since long-term use can make the congestion worse. Most over-the-counter decongestants and cold remedies are not recommended for children under the age of four. Surgery may be required if the congestion is due to a structural abnormality, such as a polyp, tumor, or deviated septum.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

A variety of home remedies may help prevent or relieve nasal congestion symptoms:

  • Dust and vacuum frequently, especially the bedroom. This helps remove dust, pet dander, dust mites, and other allergens that can cause a stuffy nose.
  • Eat spicy foods. Horseradish, wasabi, and spicy chilies help to open up clogged sinus passages.
  • Drink hot liquids. Hot soups and teas help moisturize sinuses and help flush away mucus and irritants.
  • Stay hydrated. This helps thin mucus so that it can drain more easily. Many decongestants, such as guaifenesin, work better when taken with plenty of fluids.
  • Apply warm compresses to sinuses for five minutes several times a day. This improves circulation to the area and helps the cilia remove irritants and mucus from the sinus passages.
  • Irrigating sinus passages with a saline rinse can thin mucus, decrease inflammation, and help wash away bacteria and irritants.
  • Take a hot bath with menthol or eucalyptus aromatherapy oils. The mixture of the steam and the vapors from the oil will help open clogged sinuses.
  • Use a humidifier or vaporizer. Very dry air can cause the delicate mucous membranes of the nasal passages to become inflamed. A humidifier or vaporizer will help add moisture to the air, which can relieve congestion symptoms.
  • Elevate the head to about 30 degrees when sleeping. This position promotes sinus drainage and easier breathing.

Lifestyle changes can help promote a healthy immune system and reduce the likelihood of developing a sinus infection or other illness that can lead to nasal congestion. The following are simple ways to boost the body’s natural defenses:

  • Get proper sleep. Exhaustion leads to a depressed immune system and makes the body more susceptible to infection.
  • Eat a diet rich in vitamins and antioxidants. Healthy foods are loaded with natural anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and antifungal agents that increase the body’s ability to fight infection.
  • Get plenty of exercise. Engaging in regular physical activity alters the body’s natural biochemistry and can help promote a healthy immune system.

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