Nasal congestion or “stuffy nose” occurs when nasal and adjacent tissues and blood vessels become swollen with excess fluid, causing a “stuffy” plugged feeling. Nasal congestion may or may not include a nasal discharge or “runny nose.”
Nasal congestion usually is just an annoyance for older children and adults. But nasal congestion can be serious for children whose sleep is disturbed by their nasal congestion, or for infants, who might have a hard time feeding as a result.
Nasal congestion can be caused by anything that irritates or inflames the nasal tissues. Infections — such as colds, flu or sinusitis — and allergies are frequent causes of nasal congestion and runny nose. Sometimes a congested and runny nose can be caused by irritants such as tobacco smoke and car exhaust. This condition is called nonallergic rhinitis or vasomotor rhinitis.
Less commonly, nasal congestion can be caused by a tumor.
Potential causes of nasal congestion include:
- Acute sinusitis (nasal and sinus infection)
- Chronic sinusitis
- Churg-Strauss syndrome
- Common cold
- Decongestant nasal spray overuse
- Deviated septum
- Dry air
- Enlarged adenoids
- Food, especially spicy dishes
- Foreign body in the nose
- Granulomatosis with polyangiitis (Wegener’s granulomatosis)
- Hormonal changes
- Influenza (flu)
- Medications, such as those used to treat high blood pressure, erectile dysfunction, depression, seizures and other conditions
- Nasal polyps
- Nonallergic rhinitis (chronic congestion or sneezing not related to allergies)
- Occupational asthma
- Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)
- Sleep apnea
- Thyroid disorders
- Tobacco smoke
When to see a doctor
For adults – seek medical attention if:
- Your symptoms last more than 10 days.
- You have a high fever.
- Your nasal discharge is yellow or green and you also have sinus pain or fever. This may be a sign of a bacterial infection.
- You have blood in your nasal discharge or a persistent clear discharge after a head injury.
For children – seek medical attention if:
- Your child is younger than 2 months and has a fever.
- Your baby’s runny nose or congestion causes trouble nursing or makes breathing difficult.
Until you see your doctor, try these simple steps to relieve symptoms:
- Try sniffing and swallowing or gently blowing your nose.
- Avoid known allergic triggers.
- If your runny nose is a persistent, watery discharge, particularly if you’re also sneezing and have itchy or watery eyes, your symptoms may be allergy-related, and an over-the-counter antihistamine may help. Be sure to follow the label instructions exactly.
- For babies and small children, use a soft, rubber-bulb syringe to gently remove any secretions.
To relieve postnasal drip — when excess saliva (mucus) builds up in the back of your throat – try these measures:
- Avoid common irritants such as cigarette smoke and sudden humidity changes.
- Drink plenty of water because fluid helps thin nasal secretions.
- Try nasal saline sprays or rinses.