Nasal Congestion: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Nasal congestion is when the tissue lining inside of the nose swells because of inflamed blood vessels. Inflammation is the body's natural response to invaders like bacteria, viruses, other germs, and dust. Nasal congestion usually is a reaction to the common cold, allergies, environmental irritants, the flu, or sinus infection. The condition may or may not include a runny nose.

Nasal congestion usually disappears on its own in about a week, and there are many ways to manage the condition at home. Nasal congestion that lasts longer than three weeks may require medical attention.

This article covers the symptoms, types, and causes of nasal congestion; diagnosis and treatment of nasal congestion, and when to get help for nasal congestion.

Woman nursing a cold or flu at home with stuffy nose

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Symptoms of Nasal Congestion

Symptoms of nasal congestion include:

  • Runny nose
  • Stuffy nose
  • Loss of smell
  • Sneezing
  • Itchy nose

Causes of Nasal Congestion

The most common causes of nasal congestion are:

  • The common cold
  • Flu
  • Sinus infection
  • Allergies
  • Environmental irritants

The common cold and flu are caused by viruses that spread via air droplets from people's noses and mouths as they sneeze or cough. These viruses can irritate the nasal passages and cause inflammation leading to nasal congestion.

A sinus infection is caused by fluid buildup in sinuses, which are air pockets in the face. The fluid can become a breeding ground for viruses and bacteria, which can also irritate the nose.

Other possible causes of nasal congestion include:

  • Allergies: When allergens (substances that cause allergic reactions) enter the nasal passages, inflammation results.
  • Nonprescription nasal sprays: If used for longer than three days, the body can get sensitized to nasal sprays, causing the blood vessels in the nose to swell up when the medication wears off. This can result in "rebound congestion" from trapped fluids.
  • Nasal polyps: These usually noncancerous growths are caused by inflammation in the nasal passages.
  • Pregnancy: About 65% of pregnant people experience nasal congestion at some point during their pregnancy. This is partly because pregnancy increases fluid in the body and causes swelling.

What Medications Can Cause Nasal Congestion?

The following medications can cause nasal congestion:

  • High blood pressure medications: Research has found that people may have nasal congestion because of high blood pressure medication and might not be aware of it. Nasal steroids or surgery could help.
  • Erectile dysfunction (ED) medications like Viagra (sildenafil)
  • Antianxiety drugs like Xanax (alprazolam)
  • Antipsychotic drugs like Thorazine (chlorpromazine)
  • Tricyclic antidepressants like Cymbalta (duloxetine)
  • Nasal decongestant spray: If nasal congestion doesn't improve after three days of using a nasal decongestant spray, there is a chance of "rebound congestion" because of a return of swelling in the nose once medication wears off.
  • Aspirin, ibuprofen, and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): About 3% to 5% of people with asthma can be sensitive to medications like Advil or Motrin (ibuprofen), which cause overproduction of disease-fighting chemicals that cause inflammation.

How to Treat Nasal Congestion

Remedies for treating nasal congestion at home include:

  • Drinking fluids
  • Using a warm, wet washcloth to the face several times a day
  • Inhaling steam from a shower that is not too hot several times a day
  • Using a vaporizer or humidifier
  • Using saline nasal spray
  • Wearing adhesive strips for the nose
  • Staying elevated instead of lying down
  • Taking over-the-counter (OTC) decongestants or antihistamines
  • Taking prescription allergy medications if your allergies are diagnosed
  • Using nasal decongestant spray (for no longer than three days before a three-day break)

If nasal congestion lasts longer than three weeks, it's advised to seek medical attention so the underlying cause can be diagnosed.

Complications and Risk Factors Associated With Nasal Congestion

If left untreated, chronic nasal congestion (nasal congestion that lasts longer than three weeks) could cause or mask more serious conditions like:

  • Nasal polyps: These are usually noncancerous growths in the nasal lining that could make it difficult to breathe
  • Unknown allergies
  • Nonallergic rhinopathy (vasomotor rhinitis): Nonallergic rhinopathy is when a trigger that is not an allergy or an infection causes symptoms like stuffy nose, drainage, and sneezing. Triggers for nonallergic rhinopathy can include dry air, pollution, intense emotions, alcohol, medications, and strong odors.
  • Bacterial infection
  • Inherited disorders
  • A weakened immune system

Chronic (long-term) nasal congestion may lead to:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Sleep difficulties, including sleep apnea (in which breathing during sleep starts and stops)
  • A feeling of fogginess or depression
  • Inability to breathe through the nose

Are There Tests to Diagnose the Cause of Nasal Congestion?

If you seek medical attention for nasal congestion, a healthcare professional will likely test for allergy or infection using the following:

  • Allergy tests: Allergies can be tested with a skin test, which includes putting a small amount of an allergen on the skin to observe reactions. They can also be diagnosed with a blood test.
  • Blood tests: Blood tests can identify allergies, viruses and bacteria, and chronic diseases.
  • Endoscopy: An endoscopy is when a thin tube with a camera is inserted into a natural opening of the body so a doctor can view the organs and other systems.
  • Sputum (mucus) culture
  • Throat culture
  • Sinus and chest X-rays

When to See a Healthcare Provider

If the nasal congestion lasts for longer than three weeks, it's advised to see a healthcare provider.

Medical attention is also necessary if the following symptoms appear with nasal congestion:

  • Swelling of the forehead, cheeks, eyes, or side of the nose
  • Blurred vision
  • Throat pain or white or yellow spots on the throat
  • Discharge from the nose that is not white or yellow
  • Discharge from only one side of the nose
  • Smelly discharge from the nose
  • A head injury with nasal discharge
  • Numbness of the cheeks or forehead
  • Persistent nosebleeds
  • Fever

Summary

Nasal congestion is when tissue lining the nose swells because of inflamed blood vessels. Symptoms of nasal congestion include runny nose, itchy nose, sneezing, and loss of smell. The common cold, flu, and sinus infection are the most likely causes of nasal congestion. It's easily treated at home.

If nasal congestion includes swelling of the head, a head injury, non-white or non-yellow discharge, blurred vision, or fever, it's advised to seek medical attention immediately.

A Word From Verywell

Nasal congestion can be uncomfortable, but it normally disappears on its own in about a week. With some simple home remedies, like warm (not hot) steam from a shower, drinking fluids, and staying elevated, you can be back in top shape in no time.

If your nasal congestion is long-lasting, know that there is hope. Allergies, bacteria, and other conditions are preventable and treatable. And even when nasal congestion is a side effect of medication, there are treatments that can help.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why does the nose get congested?

    Nasal congestion is a result of inflamed blood vessels inside the nose's tissue lining. Inflammation is the body's natural response to threats like bacteria, viruses, or allergens. As viruses cause colds and flus that are spread through sneezing, coughing, and surfaces, the nasal passages become irritated and produce mucus.

  • How can I treat nasal congestion at home?

    Remedies include drinking clear fluids to thin out mucus, placing a warm and wet washcloth on the face, sitting in warm (but not hot) steam or vapor, staying elevated instead of lying down, using a saline spray, using a nasal decongestant spray for no longer than three days, taking OTC medications, and using nasal strips. Most nasal congestion should fade in about a week.

  • Can nasal congestion be dangerous?

    Nasal congestion that occurs with a head injury, swelling of the face, odd-colored mucus, dizziness, a smelly discharge, or spots in the throat requires medical attention immediately. If nasal congestion lasts longer than three weeks, it could be masking a chronic condition like unknown allergies, an immune system deficiency, or bacterial infection. Chronic nasal congestion could also be a sign of nasal polyps.

15 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Neha Kashyap
Neha is a New York-based health journalist who has written for WebMD, ADDitude, HuffPost Life, and dailyRx News. Neha enjoys writing about mental health, elder care, innovative health care technologies, paying for health care, and simple measures that we all can take to work toward better health.