An Overview of Nasal Congestion Due to a Cold

Causes and treatments for congestion from colds

Woman holding bottle of cold meds

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Nasal congestion is not just a symptom of the common cold, but it's often what causes much of the unpleasantness that comes with it. People often complain of a stuffy or runny nose, which is the result of nasal inflammation and mucus production resulting from the illness. Luckily, while your cold runs its course, you have a number of treatment options for finding relief.

Symptoms

Congestion is a symptom and not an illness itself, but it can lead to:

  • Runny nose
  • Stuffiness
  • Sinus pressure
  • Sinus headaches and possibly migraines
  • Reduced sense of smell and taste
  • Post-nasal drip, which can lead to a cough and/or sore throat
  • Difficulty talking, eating, or sleeping because of breathing limitations

Symptoms of nasal congestion can be mildly annoying, make you utterly miserable, or anything in between.

Causes

When you catch a cold, the virus gets inside your sinuses—a series of cavities and passages behind your nose, eyes, and cheeks—and irritates them. That signals your immune system to start making mucus (snot) to wash the virus out and moisten the irritated tissues.

It's not as easy to rid the body of a virus this way as it is, say, dust particles, so the mucus continues to build up. That causes your sinuses to fill up and put pressure on everything around them.

While all of this is occurring, your immune system is increasing blood flow to the area and sending in all kinds of specialized cells to kill the invading virus. That leads to inflammation, which creates additional pressure.

Treatment

Congestion as a cold symptom is typically short-lived and will go away on its own once your immune system triumphs over the virus. In some cases, congestion may hang on for up to two weeks.

No medication can "cure" congestion (or a cold, for that matter), but plenty of over-the-counter (OTC) products can help relieve it temporarily.

  • Decongestants and sometimes antihistamines can reduce the swelling and relieve congestion.
  • Pain relievers, especially NSAIDs like ibuprofen and naproxen, may help with discomfort and inflammation.
  • Nasal saline spray or sinus rinses can help wash the excess mucus out of your nasal passages and sinuses.
  • Using a humidifier, inhaling steam, and drinking plenty of fluids may help as well.

Ask your doctor what treatments are best for you, especially if you have chronic health conditions or you're pregnant or breastfeeding.

OTC cold medications are not recommended for children under 4, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. They're not believed to be effective and can be dangerous.

A Word From Verywell

Most people get four to six colds a year, and the common cold is the top reason for missed days of work and school. While treatment options are available, do your best to stay healthy and avoid getting sick for your sake and that of those around you.

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  2. Naclerio RM, Bachert C, Baraniuk JN. Pathophysiology of nasal congestion. Int J Gen Med. 2010;3:47-57. doi:10.2147/ijgm.s8088

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