How Congestion Can Be Treated

Congestion is a general term that 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 may correlate with excess mucus or phlegm.

Woman looking at camera holding her fingers to the sides of her nose
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Nasal congestion, or a runny nose, is annoying but common. 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 (also sometimes called 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.

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.


As previously mentioned 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 including:

  • 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
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Article Sources
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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Updated June 26, 2018.

  2. Cleveland Clinic. Sinus Infection (Sinusitis). Updated February 10, 2018.

  3. 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

  4. Garza A. Reducing dependence on decongestant nasal sprays. Pharmacy Times. 2015.

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

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

  • University of Michigan Health System. Sinus Congestion.