Causes and Treatments for Nasal or Sinus Congestion

How to clear a stuffy nose or congested sinuses

Congestion refers to a feeling of stuffiness in the nasal or breathing passageways.

Nasal congestion, stuffiness, or a runny nose is generally caused by increased blood volume to the vessels that line the passages inside the nose. Sinus congestion refers to a feeling of fullness in the sinuses. These conditions can occur together or separately.

Both types of congestion may correlate with excess mucus or phlegm.

Woman looking at camera holding her fingers to the sides of her nose
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Causes

Both nasal and sinus congestion are most often caused by viral infections, however, there are other causes that may need to be evaluated.

Other less common causes of a runny nose and congestion include pregnancy, other conditions that cause a change in hormone levels, vasomotor rhinitis, nasal polyps or a deviated septum.

Nasal Congestion

Causes of nasal congestion include infections usually caused by viruses and allergies to grass, pet dander, foods or other substances.

It can be treated with medications called decongestants such as pseudoephedrine or antihistamines like diphenhydramine (depending on the cause). The common cold virus Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) can cause severe congestion and pneumonia in small children. While many small children are hospitalized with RSV each year, in adults RSV usually causes regular cold symptoms that go away in a week or two.

Sinus Congestion

Sinus congestion (sinusitis) results in a feeling of fullness in the face especially around the eyes, cheeks, and forehead. It can cause severe headaches.

It is often associated with a cold virus or occasionally a bacterial infection as well as allergies. It sometimes causes a post-nasal drip. Some cases can go on for weeks but most cases resolve on their own. More rarely an antibiotic needs to be prescribed.

Relief of symptoms of sinus congestion also include decongestants and antihistamines but can also include over-the-counter pain relievers such as Tylenol or Ibuprofen.

Treatment

Some over-the-counter medications are helpful in relieving congestion.

There are also things you can do at home to thin your mucus and relieve congestion, such as:

  • Applying a warm wet washcloth to your face several times a day
  • Drinking plenty of water
  • Using a cool-mist humidifier
  • Using an over-the-counter saline nasal spray
  • Using a neti pot or other method of nasal irrigation
  • Keep your head elevated (lying down can make congestion worse)
  • Over-the-counter nasal sprays such as Afrin (oxymetazoline) can be helpful for relieving congestion but should not be used more than 3 days in a row to avoid rebound congestion

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How can you unclog your ears from congestion?

    You may help relieve a feeling of pressure in your ears by treating nasal congestion with over-the-counter decongestants or antihistamines. You can also try chewing gum, yawning, or sucking on candy. Check with your doctor if your symptoms don't improve or if you also have pain or fever.

  • How do you help get rid of a baby's congestion?

    A nose aspirator can help remove mucus from your baby's nose. Over-the-counter saline nose drops can also help to thin the mucus. Check with your pediatrician if symptoms don't improve or get worse.

  • How can you relieve chest congestion?

    To ease coughing, try the following:

    • Use a cool-mist humidifier in your room
    • Breathe in steam from a hot shower
    • Suck on lozenges (for patients over 4 years old)
    • Drink lots of fluids

    Call your doctor if you have a temperature over 100.4 F, trouble breathing, or symptoms that last three weeks.

7 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. Dzieciolowska-Baran E, Teul-Swiniarska I, Gawlikowska-Sroka A, Poziomkowska-Gesicka I, Zietek Z. Rhinitis as a cause of respiratory disorders during pregnancy. Adv Exp Med Biol. 2013;755:213-20. doi:10.1007/978-94-007-4546-9_27

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

  3. Cleveland Clinic. Sinus Infection (Sinusitis).

  4. Garza A. Reducing dependence on decongestant nasal sprays. Pharmacy Times.

  5. MedlinePlus. Ear barotrauma. Updated April 13, 2020.

  6. Cleveland Clinic. How to help your baby or toddler clear a stuffy nose.

  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Chest cold (acute bronchitis).

Additional Reading
  • Medline Plus. Stuffy or runny nose - adult.

  • University of Maryland Medical Center. Nasal Congestion - Overview.

  • University of Michigan Health System. Sinus Congestion.

By Kristin Hayes, RN
Kristin Hayes, RN, is a registered nurse specializing in ear, nose, and throat disorders for both adults and children.