Stuffy nose

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at December 9, 2015
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A stuffy nose makes life uncomfortable – and it can be a symptom of serious health problems. In most cases nasal congestion is caused by allergies and other minor conditions, but the symptoms, including drainage, aching sinuses and trouble breathing, send sufferers searching for ways to ease their discomfort. Depending on the causes of a stuffy nose, home remedies and over the counter allergy treatments can provide relief. But some kinds of nasal stuffiness may call for a visit to the doctor.


Definition & Facts

A stuffy nose results from inflamed and swollen nasal and sinus tissues and blood vessels, which can fill with excess fluid, or mucus. When those irritated sinuses and nasal tissues swell, the head and nose can feel achy and congested.

A stuffy nose may also involve a nasal discharge that leads to a “runny” nose, as the excess mucus caused by irritants like allergens or viruses begins to drain. But some people experience a dry stuffiness, when nasal passages are swollen and irritated without much mucus production.


Causes of nasal stuffiness are many, but most are relatively minor. They include the obvious colds and flu, allergies, chronic sinusitis or sinus infections, but cold temperatures, migraine, dry air, certain medications and nasal polyps in the nose can also cause nasal congestion.

Less commonly, nasal stuffiness can be caused by thyroid problems or tumors in the nose or sinuses. Some people have a chronically stuffy or runny nose for no apparent reason, a condition called nonallergic, or vasomotor rhinitis. Addiction to drugs such as cocaine can also cause nasal irritation and stuffiness.

When to see a doctor

Nasal congestion is usually not serious in adults and older children, but in very young children and infants, a stuffy nose with mucus can interfere with breathing. A stuffy nose caused by cold, allergen or environmental factors such as dry air or a drop in temperatures is temporary and usually resolves on its own or with simple interventions such as using humidifier or avoiding a trigger food or substance.

But it may be wise to see a doctor if the condition persists, or other factors are present. Medical experts advise consulting with a physician if the congestion is accompanied by pain, a high fever lasting more than three days or so and a thick, green discharge, those symptoms may indicate a bacterial infection that needs to be treated with antibiotics.

Individuals with chronic respiratory ailments such as emphysema or asthma should also see a doctor about persistent stuffiness – and so should those taking medications such as immunosuppressants. Anyone experiencing congestion accompanied by a bloody nasal discharge should also seek medical care, as well as anyone who has a clear nasal discharge after head injury, since that could be a symptom of leaking brain fluids.

Parents should call a doctor if a child with nasal congestion is younger than two months and also has a fever, or if the child has trouble breathing, nursing or eating due to nasal congestion.

Treatment & Therapy

Treatments for stuffy noses range from antibiotics (for infections) to a simple hot shower. For those who have uncomplicated nasal congestion caused by allergies, colds or environmental factors, self-care usually resolves the condition. If the stuffy nose is caused by a cold or flu, it usually clears up on its own once the illness has run its course.

But in the meantime, a combination of heat and steam can help. Taking a hot shower, breathing in steam from a pot of hot water, or warm compresses on the sinuses and nose can help loosen mucus and clear the congestion. If allergies are the culprit, it’s important to identify and avoid the allergen. Since a stuffy nose can be caused by reactions to many things, such as pollens, dust, foods, pets, fragrances and cigarette smoke, an essential first step is to minimize exposure.

Decongestant nasal sprays or drops, and over the counter allergy medications can be useful in reducing inflammation of the nasal passages and minimizing discharge. But overusing these kinds of treatments can cause even more irritation and exacerbate the problem rather than helping it. A neti pot can also be helpful in clearing the sinuses and reducing inflammation of the tissues. This remedy involves using a specially designed pot for flushing the nasal passages with sterile water or a gentle saline solution.

Neti pots can be effective in eliminating stuffiness caused by chronic sinusitis and allergies. For just about all kinds of nasal congestion, natural and herbal remedies can be helpful. Adding a few drops of eucalyptus oil to hot water and then breathing the steam can ease stuffiness. A hot cup of tea can also help. And eating very spicy foods, containing ingredients such as chili peppers and jalapenos, can clear congestion fast.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

Preventing nasal congestion can be tricky, since the condition is caused by many factors. But good habits for an overall healthy lifestyle can keep the immune system strong and reduce the length of colds and flu.

Taking in extra Vitamin A and C can also help the body recover faster from respiratory illnesses. If the stuffiness is caused by allergies, identifying and avoiding the triggers is key. That may take some detective work, since nasal stuffiness can be caused by agents as diverse as dust mites, dairy products, shellfish and pollen.

If environmental factors such as dry air or living in cold temperatures play a role, keeping air moist with humidifiers and avoiding exposure to temperature extremes may be worth trying. Milk and other dairy products can increase mucus production, so it may help to avoid them during a bout with colds or flu – or skip them altogether if milk proteins trigger stuffiness in general. And for those with chronic stuffiness, regular use of a neti pot or saline rinse can keep inflammation and swelling down.

Though a stuffy or runny nose can sometimes be serious, nasal congestion is usually a minor, if inconvenient problem that can be treated at home. Simple self-care and avoiding triggers can help keep nasal passages and sinuses congestion free.

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