Sniffles (Nasal Congestion and Discharge)

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"The sniffles" is a slang term that usually refers to nasal congestion (stuffy nose), nasal discharge (runny nose), and/or the minor illnesses associated with them, such as the common cold. The official term for a runny nose is rhinorrhea, which describes excess fluid (mucus) draining from the nose. This fluid can vary from thick to thin, clear to opaque, and intermittent to constant.

A runny nose is a typical symptom of the common cold. Adults experience an average of two to three colds a year (and children even more frequently).

This article will discuss the symptoms of "sniffles," particularly nasal discharge. It will also look at the causes of a runny nose in addition to the common cold, how to treat a runny nose and related symptoms, and when to call a healthcare provider.

person blowing nose

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Symptoms of Sniffles

Symptoms of the common cold can include:

  • Runny nose
  • Nasal congestion
  • Sneezing
  • Coughing
  • Sore throat
  • Post-nasal drip (mucus dripping down the throat)
  • Watery eyes
  • Fever (not common)

These symptoms usually peak within two to three days and can last up to 10–14 days. At first, nasal mucus is clear but may change to white, yellow, or green after a few days. This does not mean you have an infection that requires antibiotics.

Symptoms of "the sniffles" can also be caused by rhinitis, irritation, and inflammation in the nose's mucus membranes. Rhinitis is often because of allergies (sometimes called hay fever). Symptoms of rhinitis include:

  • Runny nose/clear discharge from the nose
  • Stuffy nose
  • Itchy nose, eyes, throat, ears, and/or roof of the mouth
  • Sneezing
  • Nosebleeds
  • Snoring
  • Mouth breathing
  • Recurrent ear infections
  • Tiredness
  • Swollen nasal tissues
  • Dark circles and/or creases under the eyes

Common Triggers for Rhinitis

Common triggers for rhinitis include:

  • Pollen (from trees, grass, and weeds)
  • Dust mites
  • Animal dander
  • Mold
  • Cockroach waste
  • Smoke, fumes, and odors
  • Certain foods/spices
  • Hormonal changes
  • Environmental changes
  • Certain medications
  • Temperature

Causes of Sniffles

An excess of thick mucus can cause nasal congestion, but a stuffy nose usually results from the swelling of inflamed blood vessels in the tissues lining the nose.

Several things can cause a stuffy or runny nose, including:

  • Common cold (usually caused by rhinoviruses)
  • Influenza ("the flu")
  • Sinus or adenoid infection
  • Allergies/allergic rhinitis/hay fever
  • Crying
  • Cold weather
  • Overuse of some nasal sprays or drops
  • Nasal polyps (growths of inflamed tissue lining the nose or sinuses)
  • Pregnancy
  • Vasomotor rhinitis (nonallergic rhinitis)
  • Large or swollen turbinates (bones covered in mucosa along the inside of the nose)
  • Large adenoids
  • Nasal cysts or tumors (uncommon)
  • Structural abnormalities, such as a deviated nasal septum (nasal septum leans more to one side), choanal atresia (back of the nose is closed off with bone and/or tissue at birth), or pyriform aperture stenosis (narrow bony nasal opening)

Sniffles vs. COVID-19

Some symptoms of "the sniffles" (like some common cold symptoms) can overlap with signs of COVID-19. For some people with COVID-19, symptoms can appear mild and be mistaken for a cold or other minor illness. It's important to watch for other COVID-19 symptoms, and not just assume it's a cold. If possible, take a COVID-19 test if you have symptoms, even if you think you have a cold.

How to Treat Sniffles

If you have a cold, let it run its course while your body fights it off. Though you can't cure your illness, there are some ways to help you feel better while you're sick, including:

  • Get plenty of rest
  • Stay hydrated/drink plenty of fluids (including warm liquids like tea or soup)
  • Use a cool mist vaporizer
  • Nasal irrigation/rinses using saline nasal drops or spray (use a rubber suction bulb to clear mucus for babies and young children), a neti pot, or something similar
  • Apply a moist, warm facecloth to your face a few times a day
  • Keep your head elevated (make sure to follow safe sleep practices for infants and young children)
  • Suck on lozenges (bot for children under 4 years old because they are a choking hazard)
  • Use a hot bowl of water or a shower to breathe in steam two to four times a day (do not inhale hot steam)
  • Try honey for a cough (not for children younger than 1 year old)
  • Try over-the-counter adhesive nasal strips to help widen the nostrils
  • Talk to your healthcare provider or pharmacist about medications that may help with symptom relief

Cough, cold, and allergy medications can have multiple ingredients that may overlap or interact with other medications. Check the ingredients in all your medications and take them as directed to avoid taking too much or experiencing drug interactions.

Nasal sprays may make congestion worse if overused. Don't use over-the-counter nasal sprays for more than three days unless directed by your healthcare provider.

If allergies cause your nasal congestion, you can take measures to reduce your allergy triggers, such as:

  • Cleaning regularly
  • Minimizing pet allergy triggers (wash your hands after handling pets, keep them out of your bedroom, etc.)
  • Using zippered cases on bedding to protect from dust mites
  • Treating and preventing indoor mold (use a professional if possible)
  • Monitoring outdoor pollen and mold counts
  • Closing windows and doors during allergy season
  • Changing clothes, shower, and wash your hair when you come in from spending time outside
  • Wearing a NIOSH-rated (95) filter mask when performing outdoor tasks such as mowing the lawn
  • Seeing an allergist to discuss strategies to minimize reactions

Medications and Children

Talk to your child's healthcare provider or pharmacist before giving your child over-the-counter (OTC) medications. Some OTC medications can be harmful to children of certain ages, including:

  • Pain/fever relievers: Do not give these to children who are under 12 weeks of age (unless directed by a healthcare provider), and only Tylenol (acetaminophen) if under 6 months of age
  • Aspirin: Do not give this to children because it can cause a rare but serious condition called Reye's syndrome.
  • Cough and cold medicines: Do not give these to children younger than 4 years old (unless directed by a healthcare provider) because this can result in serious and sometimes life-threatening side effects. For children over 4, talk to a healthcare provider or pharmacist to ensure proper dosages for their age and weight.

Complications Associated With Sniffles

Runny nose and nasal congestion from colds usually resolve without issue. Rarely, untreated sinus infections can lead to more serious infections.

If nasal passages are irritated or obstructed for an extended period, sleep, ear health, quality of life, and facial development (in children) may be affected.

Are There Tests to Diagnose the Cause of Sniffles?

A healthcare provider will conduct a physical exam and check the throat, nose, ears, and airways. If more than a common cold is suspected, additional tests may be run, such as:

  • Blood tests
  • Allergy skin tests
  • Sputum and/or throat culture
  • Sinus and/or chest X-ray
  • Exploration of the entire nasal cavity using a flexible fiberoptic camera

Sometimes, a healthcare provider may refer you to a specialist, such as an otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat specialist) or an allergist.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

See your healthcare provider if:

  • The stuffy nose is accompanied by swelling of the eyes, forehead, cheek, or side of the nose.
  • Blurred vision occurs.
  • Throat pain is lasting or severe, or there are white or yellow spots on the tonsils or other areas of the throat.
  • There is trouble breathing or breathing is fast.
  • Dehydration is suspected.
  • A cough lasts longer than 10 days or produces mucus that is yellow-green or gray.
  • Nasal discharge smells foul, comes from one side only, or is a color other than white or yellow.
  • Nasal washing does not relieve sinus pain.
  • There is a fever (anything equal or above 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit taken orally) with nasal discharge.
  • There is a high fever (anything above 102.2 degrees Fahrenheit) or fever that lasts longer than three days.
  • There is an earache or ear discharge.
  • There is pus in the eyes.
  • Symptoms do not improve, get worse, or last longer than 10 days.
  • Symptoms (such as fever and cough) improve but then come back or get worse.
  • You have symptoms of a more serious condition such as strep throat, pneumonia, the flu, or COVID-19.
  • The child is younger than 6 months old.
  • Chronic medical conditions worsen.
  • You are concerned or think you should see a healthcare provider.

Seek medical care right away if you or your child:

  • Have trouble breathing (call 911 if you or your child is struggling for breath, can barely speak or cry, or you think it is an emergency)
  • Is wheezing (a high-pitched purring or whistling sound when breathing out)
  • Has nasal discharge after a head injury
  • Has a fever and is under 12 weeks old
  • Seems to be very sick or getting worse
  • Has a high fever, over 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius)
  • Seems confused
  • Have severe belly pain
  • Have a bad headache
  • Have pain or pressure in the chest
  • Look bluish in the lips or face
  • Have trouble staying awake
  • Have asthma or another illness and have symptoms that could be the flu or COVID-19
  • Have a condition such as cystic fibrosis, chronic lung disease, sickle cell disease, HIV, cancer, are taking oral steroids, have a weak immune system, or any other medical consideration that puts you at high risk
  • Have new-onset drooling/trouble swallowing
  • You think urgent care is needed


"The sniffles" is a slang term for a stuffy or runny nose or the minor illnesses that cause them, such as the common cold.

Colds or allergies commonly cause nasal discharge and congestion. Colds can't be cured, but treating the symptoms with home measures such as saline rinses, staying hydrated, and getting plenty of rest can help.

OTC medications may help nasal congestion but should be taken as directed and with caution. Do not give OTC medication to children without checking with their healthcare provider or pharmacist.

9 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.
  1. Stanford Medicine Children's Health. Chronic rhinorrhea (runny nose).

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common cold.

  3. American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Runny nose, stuffy nose, sneezing.

  4. Johns Hopkins. Rhinitis.

  5. MedlinePlus. Stuffy or runny nose – adult.

  6. Nemours KidsHealth. Is it a cold, the flu, or COVID-19?

  7. American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Seasonal allergies.

  8. American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Do you have the winter sniffles? 5 ways you can manage indoor winter allergies.

  9. Seattle Children’s Hospital. Colds.

By Heather Jones
Heather M. Jones is a freelance writer with a strong focus on health, parenting, disability, and feminism.