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Nasal Congestion: How to Get Rid of a Stuffy Nose

Introduction and Summary

If you’ve ever struggled to breathe from your nose or laid awake at night due to stuffiness, you know how difficult congestion can be. Caused by irritation and inflammation in the nasal passages, a stuffy nose commonly occurs with illnesses like influenza and the common cold, or with seasonal and environmental allergies. Other medical conditions and external factors like smoke and strong smells can also contribute to nasal congestion.

Fortunately, there are a number of medications and at-home remedies that can ease your symptoms. Keep in mind that it’s also important to address the underlying cause of your stuffy nose.

In this article, I’ll explain:

What Is Nasal Congestion?

Nasal congestion, or more commonly referred to as a stuffy nose, occurs when the flow of air in and out of the nose is obstructed, often due to mucus. Nasal congestion usually happens because of inflammation and swelling in the sinuses and nasal passages. If you have a stuffy nose related to an infection like the common cold or influenza, or one related to an immune response like allergies, your irritated nasal membranes produce excess mucus to flush out the irritant. This can lead to congestion in the sinuses.

Common symptoms of nasal congestion include:

  • Difficulty breathing through your nose
  • Runny nose
  • Pain or tenderness in the sinuses
  • Swollen nasal tissue

Sometimes, congestion in the nasal passages can also cause post-nasal drip, causing excess mucus to build up in the throat. As a result, you may also have a sore throat or a cough when you’re congested.

Why Do I Have a Stuffy Nose?

Broadly speaking, nasal congestion happens when there’s inflammation and swelling in the tissue of the sinuses and nasal passages. This can happen for a number of reasons. Some of the most common medical causes of stuffy nose include:

  • The common cold
  • Influenza
  • Sinus infections
  • Seasonal or environmental allergies
  • Anatomical obstructions like a deviated septum
  • Hormonal changes, such as pregnancy

Occasionally, external factors can lead to congestion, including:

  • Irritants, like smoke or strong smells
  • Dry air
  • Eating spicy food
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Prolonged use of nasal decongestant sprays (such as oxymetazoline) or drops

Usually, a stuffy nose resolves on its own with time or once the cause is addressed. Some people experience chronic nasal congestion due to sinusitis, or an infection of the sinuses. Talk to your health care provider or a K doctor if your stuffy nose lasts more than ten days.

Treatment and Relief for Stuffy Nose

Wondering how to get rid of a stuffy nose? Figuring out the cause of a stuffy nose is the first step to alleviating congestion. Take comfort in knowing that it won’t last forever. If your stuffy nose is associated with a viral illness like the common cold, you can expect it to let up within 7-10 days.

Once you work with your doctor to identify what’s causing your stuffy nose, you can treat the symptoms. Commonly, doctors recommend over-the-counter (OTC) decongestants for patients with stuffy noses. These medications work by reducing the swelling in the nose to ease pressure and ultimately reduce congestion. Consider any of the following decongestants for a stuffy nose:

  • Nasal sprays like naphazoline (Privine), oxymetazoline (Afrin), or phenylephrine (Sinex).
  • Decongestant pills such as phenylephrine (Sudafed PE) and pseudoephedrine (Sudafed). Keep in mind, these medications are not recommended if you have high blood pressure.

Before you take a decongestant, talk with a doctor. It’s important not to use a decongestant spray in your nose for more than three days—otherwise, it can prolong or worsen your congestion.

Treating stuffy nose due to allergies

If you have a stuffy or runny nose due to an allergic response, whether environmental or seasonal, you may also have symptoms like itchy eyes, sneezing, and a scratchy throat. To relieve those symptoms, you can try allergy-specific medications, such as:

  • Antihistamines like diphenhydramine (Benadryl), loratadine (Claritin), or cetirizine (Zyrtec), which reduce the production of histamine, a chemical that is active in an allergic reaction.
  • Nasal steroid sprays like fluticasone propionate (Flonase), which reduce inflammation in the nose. It’s important to note that these medications contain steroids and long-term use can result in side effects including headaches, nose bleeds, and cataracts.
  • Decongestant nasal sprays such as oxymetazoline (Afrin) rapidly shrink swollen nasal passages. However, these medications are only suitable for short periods of time. Long-term use can make your nose run even more.

Self care for stuffy nose

Medications aren’t the only route for taking care of your congestion. To relieve your symptoms, you can also try the following at-home stuffy nose remedies:

  • Drinking plenty of fluids to thin nasal secretions
  • Using a humidifier to keep your nasal passages moist
  • Taking a hot, steamy shower, or inhaling steam from a pot of boiling water to loosen up mucus
  • Using a neti pot or sinus rinse bottle to irrigate your sinuses
  • Using saline spray to prevent your nasal passages from drying out
  • Sleeping with an extra pillow or raising your bed frame so your head is propped up when you sleep
  • Applying a hot compress or washcloth on your sinus area to relieve facial pain
  • Diffusing or inhale eucalyptus essential oil to make breathing easier

Preventing a Stuffy Nose

Preventing a stuffy nose starts by identifying potential irritants. If you have allergies, for example, you can dodge a stuffy nose by taking an antihistamine before being exposed to your allergen—or you can avoid it altogether. When possible, you can also avoid external factors that can contribute to a stuffy nose, like smoke, spicy food, and alcohol use.

Preventing illnesses like the common cold and influenza is another way to prevent congestion. Doctors recommend practicing routine, thorough hand washing—especially before eating or touching your face. It’s also helpful to avoid contact with anyone who might be sick. Get a flu shot every year as well to prevent a stuffy nose associated with influenza.

When to See a Doctor

If your stuffy nose is bothering you for more than ten days and isn’t improving with over-the-counter or home remedies, reach out to a K doctor who can help you determine the cause and best course of treatment.

You should also reach out to a doctor if you have any of the below symptoms, which can indicate an infection:

  • Fever
  • Sinus pain or facial pain
  • Yellow or green mucus
  • Ear pain
  • Coughing
  • Chest tightness or difficulty breathing

How K Health Can Help

Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app? Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed text with a doctor in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

Chesney Fowler, MD

Dr. Fowler is an emergency medicine physician and received her MD from George Washington University. She completed her residency in emergency medicine at Christiana Care Health System. In addition to her work at K Health, Dr. Fowler is a practicing emergency medicine physician in Washington, DC.

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