Runny nose

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at December 4, 2015
StartSymptomsRunny nose

If the nose is running, what catches it? All joking aside, a runny nose can be irritating, sore, and all around annoying.


Definition & Facts

A runny nose, by definition, is simply excess drainage. Rhinorrhea and rhinitis are two terms used to describe a runny nose, often without knowing there is a difference between the two. Rhinorrhea is thin and relatively clear drainage. Rhinitis is inflammation that results in a runny nose.

The drainage can run out of the nose - resulting in many tissues used - or it can run down the back of the throat, called postnasal drip. Some cases result in both exits being used. Being congested may accompany some cases of a runny nose, while be absent in others.


There are many different causes for a nose that's running. A list of the most common causes includes, but is not limited to:

This is by no means an incredibly inclusive list of the different causes. Less common causes could include a foreign object in the nose and a tumor. Another cause to be aware of is vasomotor rhinitis - a nose that chronically runs for no apparent reason.

When to see a doctor

It is important to know when a runny nose crosses from something that can be managed at home to something that should be looked at by a doctor. They usually do clear up on their own, but some can be a sign of more serious issues.

If the runny nose lasts more than 10 days; the discharge is green and accompanied by pain and/or a fever; if the person has asthma; if the person has emphysema; if there is blood in the discharge; clear and persistent discharges after an injury to the head; if a high fever has persisted for more than three days; or if the person is taking immune-suppressing medicines, it is time for an adult to see a doctor.

If a child's nose has been running, the time to see a doctor comes if the child is younger than two months old with a fever or if the congestion or runny nose is causing breathing or nursing difficulties. At this point, the diagnosis could be anything since a runny nose is often a common sign for other issues. One other reason to seek a doctor's help is if the discharge is clear and only one one side. These are classic signs of a spinal fluid leak, and are not seasonal allergies.

Treatment & Therapy

If the appointment with the doctor is in the near future, or there is not enough of a reason to visit a doctor yet, there are plenty of treatments available to either lessen or help fight what is causing the runny nose. These can include:

  • sniffle and swallow
  • a soft rubber suction bulb to remove excess secretions from baby and small children noses
  • an over-the-counter antihistamine for allergy related issues; it's important to make sure that the instructions on the package are read and followed exactly

However, if postnasal drip is the issue, this has to be addressed via a different approach. Irritants that are common in the world, such as cigarette smoke and sudden temperature changes, should be avoided. Other ways to combat a postnasal drip include staying hydrated, running a humidifier in the home or while sleeping, and trying saline sprays or rinses for the nose. If saline spray from a pharmacy is not readily available, a quarter teaspoon of salt can be added to one cup of cool water to make a homemade version.

Whichever is used, only two or three drops are needed. If a prescription decongestant spray is used, only use for three days tops. It could make the runny or stuffy nose worse when the spray is gone. Vitamin C is another remedy that should be avoided - there is no evidence that it really helps treat or prevent the runny or stuffy nose, especially if it is a cold symptom or from echinacea.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

A runny nose cannot easily be prevented. However, more extreme cases of runny noses can be prevented. These come from colds, injuries, etc. that have damaged the nose or are overstimulating the mucus glands in the nose. Some ways to stop the underlying causes include:

  • wash hands regularly to prevent the spread of bad germs
  • make sure the airbags are on in the car - this helps prevent head injuries in the event of a car accident
  • make sure the nose is well hydrated - either via saline spray, a humidifier, or through drinking plenty of water - when the air is dry or during the winter
  • wearing proper clothing in the cold (IE coats, hats, scarves, gloves, etc.)

While these are not the only ways to help prevent a nose from running, they are often the most common ways to stop the underlying causes. Eating less spicy foods could be counted in the list, as could taking extra care not to become addicted to a drug (meaning the dose, the reaction, etc. is carefully monitored by the one with a running nose or by their doctor). Avoiding foods that cause allergic reactions can also help keep a nose from running if the problem is that bad.