What Is 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, but it may also be caused by the common cold. Nasal congestion is marked by:

  • a stuffy or runny nose
  • sinus pain
  • mucus buildup
  • swollen nasal tissues

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

Causes of Nasal Congestion

Minor illnesses are the most common cause of nasal congestion. For instance, a cold, the flu, and sinus infections can all cause stuffy noses. When your nose becomes stuffed up and inflamed, this is congestion. According to the National Institutes of Health, illness-related congestion usually improves on its own within one week. (NIH, 2011)

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

  • allergies
  • hay fever
  • nasal polyps (noncancerous growths on the nasal passages or sinuses caused by inflammation of those areas)
  • chemical exposures
  • environmental irritants
  • chronic sinusitis (a long-lasting sinus infection)
  • tumors (usually benign, or noncancerous, masses that can cause congestion if they grow in the nasal passages)
  • a deviated septum (the structure that separates the two sides of the nose is not located in the middle of the nose)

Nasal congestion may also occur during pregnancy, beginning most often during the end of the first trimester. This nasal congestion may be caused by the hormonal fluctuations and increased blood supply that occur during pregnancy. 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 immensely when you are suffering from 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.

There are also a few nonmedicated solutions you can purchase from the drugstore. Also, consider using a saline spray. These sprays can be used as often as needed throughout the day, and they work by breaking up mucus and soothing inflamed nostrils.

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

Medical Treatment for Nasal Congestion

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

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

  • congestion that has lasted longer than 10 days
  • congestion that is accompanied by a high fever that has lasted more than three days
  • green nasal discharge along with sinus pain and fever (You may have a bacterial infection.)
  • a weakened immune system, asthma, or emphysema
  • a recent head injury, and you are now having bloody nasal discharge or a constant flow of clear discharge

Once your doctor has determined the cause of chronic nasal congestion, he or she can then 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)
  • antihistamine-containing nasal sprays, such as azelastine (Astelin, Astepro)
  • nasal steroids, such as mometasone (Asmanex Twisthaler) or fluticasone (Flovent Diskus, Flovent HFA)
  • antibiotics (for infections, such as sinusitis)
  • 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 and improve your symptoms.

Possible Complications of Nasal Congestion

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

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 potentially fatal breathing problems. They may also prevent normal speech and hearing development. For these reasons, it is important to contact your pediatrician right away if your infant is experiencing nasal congestion. He or she can then work with you to find the best treatment options for your baby.