Nasal Congestion (Stuffy Nose)

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What is nasal congestion (stuffy nose)?

Nasal congestion, or stuffy nose, is a common condition that occurs from allergies, the common cold, flu, or other upper respiratory infection. Other possible causes include nasal polyps, irritants, and structural defects. People who experience nasal congestion may notice they have mild difficulty breathing through their nose and are sniffling often.

Nasal congestion usually goes away on its own without the need for prescription medication. However, if you are experiencing nasal congestion, it is okay to use over-the-counter nasal sprays temporarily to help manage uncomfortable symptoms.

Most people with nasal congestion experience sniffling and sneezing, and may have a feeling of a drip in the back of their throat (postnasal drip). If you have nasal congestion due to a cold, you may also experience coughing or a mild headache. If you have trouble sleeping because of a stuffy nose at night, it can help to elevate your head on a few pillows.

Notify your healthcare provider if you experience chronic stuffy nose or nasal congestion accompanied by a fever. This could be a sign of an infection of your sinuses or respiratory tract. Along with a physical exam of your upper respiratory tract, your doctor may order tests to help diagnose the underlying cause of your nasal congestion.

What other symptoms might occur with nasal congestion (stuffy nose)?

Nasal congestion (stuffy nose) is very common and most people have had a stuffy nose at some point in their life, usually from allergies, infections and irritants, although structural problems can also cause it.

Symptoms related to stuffy nose

You may experience any or all of these symptoms with stuffy nose:

  • Burning feeling in the sinuses

  • Feeling of a drip in the back of the throat (postnasal drip)

  • Possible headache, cough, or sore throat

  • Sneezing

  • Sniffling

Serious symptoms of nasal congestion

In some cases, a stuffy nose can be a sign of a more serious condition. Seek prompt medical care for stuffy nose and any of these symptoms:

  • High fever (higher than 101°F)

  • Nasal congestion that lasts more than 10 days

  • Severe pain

  • Swelling of the forehead, cheeks or eyes

  • Yellow colored nasal discharge

What causes nasal congestion (stuffy nose)?

Nasal congestion (stuffy nose) happens when the tissues lining the nasal passages become swollen and inflamed. This often occurs from the common cold, flu, or allergies. Nasal congestion can cause breathing to become mildly obstructed for a short period of time. Sometimes, sinus infections, environmental irritants, or physical obstructions in the head and neck can cause nasal congestion.

Nasal congestion usually resolves on its own without the need for medication. In the case of seasonal allergies, nasal congestion (stuffy nose) may last longer and require allergy medicine to help manage symptoms.

What are the risk factors for nasal congestion (stuffy nose)?

Risk factors for nasal congestion (stuffy nose) include:

  • Nasal polyps

  • Overuse of nasal sprays (decongestants)

  • Pregnancy

  • Seasonal or other types of allergies

  • Structural abnormalities, such as a deviated septum

Reducing your risk of nasal congestion

You may be able to lower your risk or the frequency of nasal congestion by taking medication for allergies and seeing your doctor regularly during allergy season. This can help identify nasal congestion in the early stages so you can start treatment and prevent a runny, stuffy nose.

How do doctors diagnose the cause of nasal congestion (stuffy nose)?

Your doctor will perform a comprehensive exam and may look at your nose through a flexible light called an endoscope. Your doctor will look at the nasal and sinus passages for signs of inflammation, discharge, abnormal structures, and nasal polyps.

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed healthcare practitioner will ask you several questions related to your nasal congestion including:

  • How long have you been experiencing a stuffy nose?

  • Are you experiencing any other symptoms, such as fever, pain, or difficulty breathing?

  • When do your symptoms occur? Are they constant or do they come and go?

  • Does anything make your symptoms better or worse?

What are the treatments for nasal congestion (stuffy nose)

Treatment for nasal congestion (stuffy nose) often involves the use of over-the-counter nasal corticosteroid sprays or oral antihistamines. Your doctor may also recommend using nasal saline products, such as a neti pot to help clear a stuffy nose. Always talk with your doctor before taking any over-the-counter medications to make sure they do not interfere with any prescription medications you may be taking.

In some cases, people use nasal decongestant sprays too often. This practice can desensitize the lining of your nasal passages to the medicine and worsen your symptoms. Use the product temporarily and according to the package directions.

Home remedies for stuffy nose

Some home remedies that may help with nasal congestion include:

  • Avoiding environmental triggers, such as allergens, chemicals and smoke

  • Humidifier to help moisten the air

  • Increasing fluid intake to help thin nasal secretions

  • Nasal adhesive strips to help open up the nasal passages, especially to help you breathe better at night

  • Salt water nasal irrigation

  • Steam from a hot shower or vaporizer to moisten and break up congestion

What are the potential complications of nasal congestion (stuffy nose)?

Inflammation from a stuffy nose, can sometimes cause complications, such as:

Nasal congestion at night can also cause difficulty sleeping and drowsiness or trouble concentrating during the day. Seek medical care for nasal congestion lasting more than 10 days or stuffy nose accompanied by fever, thick and yellow or green nasal discharge, or facial pain.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Oct 4
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Nasal Congestion. Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/symptoms/17980-nasal-congestion
  2. Stuffy or Runny Nose - Adult. MedlinePlus, National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/003049.htm
  3. Non-Allergic Rhinitis. National Health Service. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/non-allergic-rhinitis/