You make around a quart of mucus a day, which keeps membranes all over your body moist and fights infection. Most of the time you don’t even notice the flow; you usually swallow mucus produced in your nose and sinuses without even thinking about it. (Gross, we know.)
But other times, like when you’re sick, mucus production ramps up. In those cases, you just can’t ignore the runny nose or the feeling of the mucus trickling down the back of your throat (not to mention the sore throat or cough it can produce), otherwise known as post-nasal drip.
“Post-nasal drip or draining is a normal physiological process,” explains Gavin Setzen, MD, founding partner of Albany ENT & Allergy Services. “Most of the time you’re not really aware of it, but when there are other aggravating circumstances–if it’s thicker than normal or if there’s volume of production–you become more aware of the mucus.”
Those “aggravating circumstances” could include a cold, the flu, allergies, or even changes in temperature, acid reflux, dehydration, or eating spicy foods.
If your post-nasal drip symptoms don’t go away, you may need to see a doctor. But there are many post-nasal drip remedies to try before reaching that point. Here’s where to start.
Rinsing your nasal cavity is the simplest and, for many folks, one of the most effective remedies for post-nasal drip. It’s especially effective if you think your symptoms are from allergies or pollution. A rinse with a squirt bottle or a Neti pot works by washing irritants or allergens out of your nasal passages, says Alice Hoyt, MD, assistant professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “It’s ridding your body of that extra junk that is triggering the process of mucus production.”
Steam is another simple, effective way to loosen and clear mucus from the back of your throat and ease post-nasal drip. While a humidifier will moisten the whole room, Dr. Liberatore recommends a hot shower to enhance the results. “It’s better to do something directly to your nose than to humidify the air in general, because it can increase mold issues,” she says. “You can also put a couple of drops of eucalyptus oil on the shower floor,” she adds, to help clear nasal passageways.
Other options: Fill a sink or bowl with hot water (with or without a couple of drops of eucalyptus oil), put a towel over your head, and inhale.
Post-nasal drip is commonly caused by allergies. You’ll often be able to tell if one of your symptoms is itchiness. “The allergy cells responsible for allergy symptoms release histamine, which is a very itchy compound,” explains Dr. Hoyt.
Once you know your post-nasal drip is allergy-related, take measures to limit your exposure. “Tighten up allergy-control measures using dust-mite covers and HEPA filters,” says Dr. Setzen, who is also a clinical associate professor of otolaryngology at Albany Medical College.
Other strategies include washing sheets frequently in hot water, dusting (and getting rid of clutter that collects dust), keeping pets outdoors, and removing carpets if possible.
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Drinking lots of liquids can help get rid of post-nasal drip by thinning out that pesky mucus. “If you’re not drinking enough fluids, the secretions become more tenacious,” says Dr. Setzen.
Water is best, but you can also try hot soup or herbal tea. If you like sports drinks, try diluting them with water. Avoid caffeine, as it may dehydrate you. Drinking lots of fluids is especially important for older folks, who are more prone to getting dehydrated. “Maintaining hydration allows your body to heal more quickly and cellular functions to occur more efficiently,” Dr. Hoyt says.
Many people don’t realize that post-nasal drip can also be caused by gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or acid reflux. This is when acid from the stomach regurgitates back up into the esophagus. Typically, the bubbling acid causes a burning sensation in your chest. But in some cases it can also irritate the back of your throat and your voice box.
Propping the head of your bed up about six to eight inches will make sure stomach acid flows down and not up while you sleep, keeping post-nasal drip symptoms at bay.
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Avoid fatty and fried foods
Symptoms of GERD, including post-nasal drip and sore throat, can be drastically reduced by avoiding reflux-aggravating foods. That means anything fried and anything high in fat, as well as chocolate, coffee, alcohol, carbonated drinks, citrus fruits, and peppermint.
Focus instead on lean meats, whole grains like brown rice and oatmeal, and ginger, a great tummy soother. Don’t eat too close to bedtime and stick to smaller meals too.
Many people suffering from post-nasal drip swear that giving up or at least cutting back on dairy products like milk, yogurt, and cheese reduces mucus production and eases their symptoms. No studies have proven definitively that the strategy is helpful, but personal stories abound.
“I don’t think it’s [just] an old wives’ tale,” Dr. Liberatore says. “There’s not great data, but patients have shared with me how much better they feel when they eliminate dairy.”
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Consider over-the-counter meds
In addition to medications to relieve GERD, there are a slew of widely available drugs to treat post-nasal drip and sore throat directly.
Many people start with mucus-thinning products like Mucinex and Robitussin. “Sometimes that helps relieve the irritation in the throat when the mucus is thick,” Dr. Liberatore says.
Flonase is a nasal spray that can reduce post-nasal drip related to allergies. Two squirts in each nostril once a day is usually enough, Dr. Liberatore says. Antihistamines and decongestants can also help relieve post-nasal drip.
Take care to read ingredient labels, as many over-the-counter cold medications include painkillers like acetaminophen. Taking too much, warns Dr. Hoyt, could lead to liver problems.
If your post-nasal drip lasts 10 days or more, if it gets worse, or if the mucus is green or yellow or has blood in it, it's time to see your doctor.
You could have a bacterial infection, a structural problem with your nose like a deviated septum, or nasal polyps. Antibiotics will usually take care of bacterial infections, while a deviated septum and polyps can both be corrected with surgery.
“Even though [post-nasal drip] sounds like it’s not a life-or-death problem, it really does interfere with people’s quality of life,” Dr. Liberatore says, so go get checked out if symptoms don’t subside. “Come see an ENT doctor. We have the tools to see what’s going on inside the nose and throat.”