Postnasal Drip: Symptoms, Treatments, and Causes

Medically Reviewed By Avi Varma, MD, MPH, AAHIVS, FAAFP
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Postnasal drip develops when too much mucus collects at the back of the nose or in the throat. This discomfort often leads to coughing or a persistent need to clear your throat. Treatment varies based on the underlying cause. Causes of postnasal drip include allergies, the common cold, and the flu. It also sometimes accompanies other respiratory bacterial or viral infections or can be brought on by simple irritation, such as eating spicy foods. Certain medications can cause postnasal drip, such as drugs containing estrogen.

This article will provide an overview of postnasal drip, including possible causes, how long it lasts, and treatment options. It will also discuss whether postnasal drip is a symptom of COVID-19.

What is postnasal drip?

Woman standing in field of flowers blowing nose into tissue
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Postnasal drip occurs when too much mucus collects in the area behind the nose or in the upper throat. This excess amount causes mucus to drip into the throat and produce noticeable symptoms.

Postnasal drip is one of the primary causes of chronic cough. If you have a cough that produces mucus, the mucus can be clear and watery or thick with a green, yellow, or white color.

Postnasal drip can also create the sensation of a “tickle” or itch in the throat that won’t go away. In people with asthma, postnasal drip can make it difficult to breathe.

Postnasal drip is not life threatening and typically goes away on its own or with over-the-counter (OTC) medications.

Is postnasal drip a symptom of COVID-19?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists symptoms of COVID-19, which can include a sore throat, nasal congestion, and a runny nose.

A runny nose is when excess mucus behind the nose comes through the nostrils. Postnasal drip is when extra mucus goes down the throat.

Contact your doctor or perform a home test for COVID-19 if you experience postnasal drip with additional symptoms such as:

Postnasal drip may accompany other symptoms, depending on the underlying cause.

Respiratory symptoms that may occur along with postnasal drip

Postnasal drip may accompany other symptoms affecting the respiratory system, including:

Other symptoms that may occur along with postnasal drip

Postnasal drip may accompany symptoms related to other body systems. Such symptoms include:

How long does postnasal drip last?

Depending on the cause, postnasal drip can last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks.

Contact your doctor or other healthcare professional if your postnasal drip does not improve with time or with OTC medications. Getting an accurate diagnosis for what causes your postnasal drip can help you find effective treatment.

What are treatments for postnasal drip?

When deciding how to get rid of postnasal drip, doctors first have to determine the cause. A complete exam by an ear, nose, and throat doctor is helpful in getting an accurate diagnosis.

However, because there is no specific testing for the cause of symptoms such as chronic cough, doctors may make a general diagnosis of postnasal drip for a variety of nose and throat symptoms.

Medicines for postnasal drip

Doctors may recommend medicines to treat postnasal drip, including:

  • antihistamines, such as loratadine (Claritin) or cetirizine (Zyrtec)
  • decongestants, such as pseudoepinephrine (Sudafed)
  • mucus-thinning medicines, such as guaifenesin (Mucinex)
  • OTC nasal sprays, such as cromolyn sodium (NasalCrom) or fluticasone (Flonase)
  • prescription nasal sprays, such as ipratropium (Atrovent)
  • prescription antibiotics, to treat bacterial infections

Home care for postnasal drip

You can also take steps at home to clear excess mucus and relieve postnasal drip. These include:

  • rinsing with saline to irrigate your nose
  • using humidifiers to moisturize the air
  • inhaling steam from a hot shower or bowl of hot water
  • drinking plenty of fluids to help your body clear mucus

When postnasal drip is due to allergies, it can be helpful to take steps to reduce exposure to allergens. This may include:

  • buying a vacuum with a high efficiency particulate air filter for carpets, rugs, and upholstered furniture or removing carpets and rugs from your home
  • closing windows during allergy season and running the furnace fan to filter the air
  • keeping pets out of bedrooms or only having outside pets
  • preventing mold by using a dehumidifier and exhaust fans
  • using allergen-proof covers on mattresses and pillows
  • washing bedding at least once a week in hot water and drying on the hottest setting

When should you contact a doctor for postnasal drip?

Postnasal drip often resolves on its own.

However, if your postnasal drip does not go away after a few weeks, or if you develop additional or worsening symptoms, contact your doctor or other healthcare professional. This could indicate a more serious underlying condition.

Get prompt medical care for postnasal drip that occurs with:

  • foul smelling discharge
  • fever of 100.4ºF (38ºC)
  • difficulty breathing
  • nonhealing sore in your nose
  • loose or painful upper teeth
  • persistent sore throat and mucus-producing cough
  • white patches or redness on your tongue or mouth
  • sensation of something stuck in your throat that will not go away

What causes postnasal drip?

A variety of conditions can cause postnasal drip. The symptom can also develop as a side effect of certain medications or due to environmental factors.

Common causes of postnasal drip

Excess mucus may collect behind the nose due to conditions including:

Other causes of postnasal drip

Other factors that increase thin, clear mucus also cause postnasal drip. These include:

  • cold temperatures
  • spicy foods
  • dry air
  • chemical fumes and other irritants

What are complications of postnasal drip if left untreated?

Complications from postnasal drip are relatively minor and depend on the cause. However, left untreated, postnasal drip can lead to serious complications.

In the rare event that postnasal drip results from nasopharyngeal cancers, complications related to spread of the cancer might develop.

Once your doctor diagnoses the underlying cause, following the treatment plan that you and your healthcare professional design specifically for you will help reduce the risk of potential complications, including:

  • bad breath
  • chronic nasal congestion
  • cough
  • difficulty breathing, sleeping, and swallowing
  • ear or sinus infection
  • spread of cancer

Other frequently asked questions

These are some other questions people often ask about postnasal drip. Nicole Aaronson, M.D., MBA, CPE, FACS, FAAP, reviewed the answers.

Why do I have postnasal drip every day?

If you have allergies to certain triggers and you have exposure to those triggers on a daily basis, you may experience postnasal drip every day. Talk with your doctor about what allergens may be causing your symptoms. They can also determine if you have a more serious underlying condition causing your postnasal drip.

What foods make postnasal drip worse?

Spicy foods — including chili peppers, horseradish, hot sauce, and mustard — cause an increase in mucus production that leads to postnasal drip. Doctors also recommend avoiding caffeine, which can cause dehydration and prevent the body from clearing out mucus.

Can you have postnasal drip without being sick?

Yes. Exposure to certain environmental triggers, such as cold temperatures or chemical fumes, can cause postnasal drip. Your symptoms may go away once you are away from the environment that triggered them.

Summary

Postnasal drip occurs as a result of excess mucus that builds up behind the nose or in the upper throat. Several conditions and environmental factors can cause postnasal drip.

Postnasal drip is a primary cause of chronic cough. It typically goes away on its own or with OTC treatments and home care. Talk with your doctor or other healthcare professional if your postnasal drip persists or you develop new or worsening symptoms.

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Medical Reviewer: Avi Varma, MD, MPH, AAHIVS, FAAFP
Last Review Date: 2022 Jun 27
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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.
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