What to Do About Your Stuffy Nose and Congestion

A stuffy nose can be a frustrating and annoying condition that might linger for days or even weeks. There are many underlying causes for a stuffy nose (also called congestion), but contrary to popular belief, the nostrils are not clogged by mucus.

Woman with stuffy nose
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A stuffy nose happens primarily because nasal tissues are inflamed. Often, this is caused by a common cold virus or by various types of allergies. It can also be caused by hormonal changes during pregnancy or even induced by exercise.

Because infants do not know how to breathe out of their mouth, a stuffy nose can be quite serious for them, but for the rest of us, it's usually just an annoyance that can interfere with our daily activities.

Sometimes children put things up their nose that can become lodged and cause congestion and similar or associated symptoms, this is called foreign object nasal obstruction.

Children also can get a stuffy nose from enlarged adenoids, which sometimes need to be surgically removed.

Among adults, structural abnormalities, such as a deviated septum or enlarged turbinates, can cause congestion-like symptoms. Structural problems can be inherited or the result of chronic problems such as allergies or sinusitis, or even be the result of an injury.


Over-the-counter medications that work to shrink the blood vessels inside the nose can be effective. Nasal decongestants such as Afrin (oxymetazoline) are commonly used.

Afrin should not be used longer than three days in a row to avoid a condition called rebound congestion, sometimes referred to as nasal spray addiction.

Nasal decongestants that are commonly used on a longer-term basis (for chronic sinusitis or allergies) include corticosteroids such as Flonase or Nasonex.

Some medications work better for congestion caused by allergies than for congestion caused by a cold. These include Allegra, Claritin, Zyrtec or Benadryl. These drugs are known as antihistamines because they block a chemical substance that is released in response to an allergic reaction called histamine.

Drugs that contain a medication called pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) are also effective for relieving a stuffy nose.

However, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), children under 2 years of age should not be given any kind of cough and cold product that contains a decongestant or antihistamine. The FDA warns that serious and possibly life-threatening side effects could occur including convulsions, rapid heart rates and death. When giving cough or cold medicine to children older than 2 years of age, the FDA suggests caution. They also note that manufactures have voluntarily re-labeled cough and cold products to state: “do not use in children under 4 years of age.”

Do not use pseudoephedrine for longer than three days in a row as it can lead to rebound congestion. While this medicine is available without a prescription, it is regulated and tracked by the U.S. government . The decongestant is typically kept inside the pharmacy or behind the counter and ID is required for purchase.

Phenylephrine is an oral decongestant that is currently found in most over-the-counter cough and cold medications. It is safe for many individuals to use but research as to its effectiveness has had mixed results. Some studies have shown it not to be very effective in treating congestion.

You should consult your healthcare provider or pharmacist and inform them of any other medications you are currently taking, any known allergies you have, significant health conditions and whether or not you are pregnant or breastfeeding before starting any new medication even if it is sold over-the-counter.

Follow the directions included with the medication carefully. Consult your pediatrician before giving any new medication to your infant or child.

Non-Medication Treatments

There are some other things you can try before taking medication:

  • Keep your head elevated
  • Drink a lot of water
  • Use a cool mist humidifier
  • Use over-the-counter saline nasal sprays
  • Try a neti pot
  • Use a menthol cream on your chest (not recommended for small children or infants)
  • Use over-the-counter adhesive strips that help keep your nostrils open
  • Suck on a cough drop that has menthol in it
  • For infants, a bulb syringe can help remove secretions

When To See a Healthcare Provider

Most of the time congestion will clear up in a week or so. You should see a healthcare provider, however, if:

  • you have a high fever
  • your symptoms last longer than a couple of weeks
  • your nasal passages become completely blocked
  • if your skin or lips develop a bluish tint (a condition called cyanosis)
  • if you breathing rate becomes very fast
  • you have noisy breathing
  • you have difficulty breathing
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3 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. Naclerio RM, Bachert C, Baraniuk JN. Pathophysiology of nasal congestion. Int J Gen Med. 2010;3:47–57. Published 2010 Apr 8. doi:10.2147/ijgm.s8088

  2. Benninger M. Diagnosis and management of nasal congestion: the role of intranasal corticosteroids. Postgrad Med. 2009;121(1):122-31. doi:10.3810/pgm.2009.01.1961

  3. Use Caution When Giving Cough and Cold Products to Kids. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 02/08/2018

Additional Reading
  • Medline Plus. Nasal Congestion.

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