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Nasal Congestion

Nasal congestion is another term for a stuffy nose. It is often a symptom of another health problem, such as a sinus infection. It may also be caused by the common cold.

Nasal congestion is marked by:

  • stuffy or runny nose
  • sinus pain
  • mucus buildup
  • swollen nasal tissue

Home remedies may be enough to alleviate nasal congestion, particularly if it is caused by the common cold. However, if you experience chronic, or long-term, congestion, you should seek medical treatment.

Causes of nasal congestion

Congestion is when your nose becomes stuffed up and inflamed. Minor illnesses are the most common causes of nasal congestion. For instance, a cold, the flu, and sinus infections can all cause stuffy noses. Illness-related congestion usually improves within one week.

Congestion that lasts longer than one week is often a symptom of an underlying health issue. Some explanations for long-term nasal congestion may be:

  • allergies
  • hay fever
  • noncancerous growths, called nasal polyps, or benign tumors in the nasal passages
  • chemical exposures
  • environmental irritants
  • long-lasting sinus infection, known as chronic sinusitis
  • deviated septum

Nasal congestion may also occur during pregnancy, usually during the end of the first trimester. Hormonal fluctuations and increased blood supply that occur during pregnancy may cause this nasal congestion.

These changes may affect the nasal membranes, causing them to become inflamed, dry, or to bleed.

Home remedies for nasal congestion

Home remedies can help when you are experiencing nasal congestion. Humidifiers that add moisture to the air may help to break up mucus and to soothe inflamed nasal passageways. However, if you have asthma, ask your doctor before using a humidifier.

Propping your head up on pillows can also encourage mucus to flow out of your nasal passages.

Saline sprays are safe for all ages, but for babies you will need to use an aspirator, or nasal bulb, afterward. An aspirator is used to remove any remaining mucus from the baby’s nose.

When you should see a doctor

Sometimes, home remedies are not enough to relieve congestion, particularly if your symptoms are caused by another health condition. In this case, medical treatment may be needed, especially if your condition is painful and interfering with your everyday activities.

If you have experienced any of the following, see your doctor right away:

  • congestion lasting longer than 10 days
  • congestion accompanied by a high fever that has lasted more than three days
  • green nasal discharge along with sinus pain and fever
  • weakened immune system, asthma, or emphysema

You should also see your doctor right away if you’ve had a recent head injury and are now having bloody nasal discharge or a constant flow of clear discharge

Infants and children

Nasal congestion can be more threatening in infants than in older children and adults. Nasal symptoms can interfere with infant feedings and can even lead to fatal breathing problems.

Nasal congestion may also prevent normal speech and hearing development. For these reasons, it is important to contact your pediatrician right away if your infant has nasal congestion. Your doctor can then work with you to find the best treatment options for your baby.

Treatment for congestion

After your doctor has determined the cause of chronic nasal congestion, they can recommend a treatment plan. Treatment plans often include over-the-counter or prescription medication to resolve or alleviate symptoms.

Medications used to treat nasal congestion include:

  • oral antihistamines to treat allergies, such as loratadine (Claritin) and cetirizine (Zyrtec)
  • nasal sprays that contain antihistamine, such as azelastine (Astelin, Astepro)
  • nasal steroids, such as mometasone (Asmanex Twisthaler) or fluticasone (Flovent Diskus, Flovent HFA)
  • antibiotics
  • over-the-counter or prescription strength decongestants, such as Sudafed

If you have tumors or nasal polyps in your nasal passages or sinuses that are keeping mucus from draining out, your doctor may recommend surgery to remove the tumors.

What is the outlook for nasal congestion?

Nasal congestion rarely causes major health problems. Symptoms usually improve right away with proper treatment.

Content licensed from:

Written by: Kristeen Moore
Medically reviewed on: Jun 02, 2016: University of Illinois-Chicago, College of Medicine

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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