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Stuffy or runny nose - adult

A stuffy or congested nose occurs when the tissues lining it become swollen. The swelling is due to inflamed blood vessels.

The problem may also include nasal discharge or "runny nose." If excess mucus runs down the back of your throat (postnasal drip), it may cause a cough or sore throat.

Alternative Names

Nose - congested; Congested nose; Runny nose; Postnasal drip; Rhinorrhea: nasal congestion

Causes

A stuffy or runny nose may be caused by:

The congestion typically goes away by itself within a week.

Congestion also can be caused by:

  • Hay fever or other allergies
  • Use of some nasal sprays or drops bought without a prescription for more than 3 days (may make nasal stuffiness worse)
  • Nasal polyps , sac-like growths of inflamed tissue lining the nose or sinuses
  • Pregnancy
  • Vasomotor rhinitis

Home Care

Finding ways to keep mucus thin will help it drain from your nose and sinuses and relieve your symptoms. Drinking plenty of clear fluids is one way to do this. You can also:

  • Apply a warm, moist washcloth to your face several times a day.
  • Inhale steam 2 - 4 times a day. One way to do this is to sit in the bathroom with the shower running. Do not inhale hot steam.
  • Use a vaporizer or humidifier.

A nasal wash can help remove mucus from your nose.

  • You can buy a saline spray at a drugstore or make one at home. To make one, use 1 cup of warm water, 1/2 a teaspoon of salt, and a pinch of baking soda.
  • Use gentle saline nasal sprays 3 to 4 times per day.

Congestion is often worse when lying down. Keep upright, or at least keep the head elevated.

Some stores sell adhesive strips that can be placed on the nose. These help widen the nostrils, making breathing easier.

Medicines you can buy at the store without a prescription can help your symptoms.

  • Decongestants are drugs that shrink and dry up your nasal passages. They may help dry up a runny or stuffy nose.
  • Antihistamines are drugs that treat allergy symptoms. Some antihistamines make you drowsy so use with care.
  • Nasal sprays can relieve stuffiness. Don't use over-the-counter nasal sprays more often than 3 days on and 3 days off, unless told to by your doctor.

Many cough, allergy, and cold medicines you buy have more than one medicine inside. Read the labels carefully to make sure you don't take too much of any one medicine. Ask your health care provide which cold medications are safe for you

If you have allergies:

  • Your health care provider may also prescribe nasal sprays that treat allergy symptoms
  • Learn how to avoid triggers that make allergies worse .

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your doctor for any of the following:

  • A stuffy nose with swelling of the forehead, eyes, side of the nose, or cheek, or that occurs with blurred vision
  • More throat pain, or white or yellow spots on the tonsils or other parts of the throat
  • Discharge from the nose that has a bad smell, comes from only one side, or is a color other than white or yellow
  • Cough that last longer than 10 days, or produces yellow-green or gray mucus
  • Nasal discharge following a head injury
  • Symptoms that last more than 3 weeks
  • Nasal discharge with fever

What to Expect at Your Office Visit

Your doctor may perform a physical exam that focuses on the ears, nose, throat, and airways.

Test that may be done include:

References

Bachert C, Gevaert P, van Cauwenberge P. Nasal polyps and rhinosinusitis. In: Adkinson NF Jr, ed. Middleton’s Allergy: Principles and Practice. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2008:chap 56.

Orban NT, Saleh H, Durham SR. Allergic and non-allergic rhinitis. In: Adkinson NF Jr, ed. Middleton’s Allergy: Principles and Practice. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2008:chap 55.

Manning SC. Medical management of nasosinus infectious and inflammatory disease. In: Flint PW, Haughey BH, Lund LJ, et al, eds. Cummings Otolaryngology: Head & Neck Surgery. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2010:chap 50.

Updated: 8/12/2013

Ashutosh Kacker, MD, BS, Associate Professor of Otolaryngology, Weill Cornell Medical College, and Associate Attending Otolaryngologist, New York-Presbyterian Hospital, New York, NY. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.


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