Does Having a Stuffy Nose Mean You Have COVID-19?

Understand what your nasal congestion could mean.

As soon as the temperature drops just a little, a stuffy nose and sniffles are likely to follow. Extra nasal congestion can also bring a bit more worry because of COVID-19.

A stuffy nose—noted as "congestion or runny nose"— is classified as a symptom of COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but it's not necessarily considered "the quintessential symptom," Neha Vyas, MD, a family medicine physician at Cleveland Clinic, told Health.

So how worried should you be if you start sniffling and sneezing more than usual? Here's what you need to know.

How Common Is a Stuffy Nose With COVID-19?

The CDC doesn't provide information on how many people have common COVID-19 symptoms—but the World Health Organization has one report that does.

In February 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) published a report analyzing 55,924 laboratory-confirmed cases of COVID-19 in China. That report found that just 4.8% of patients showed nasal congestion as a sign or symptom of a COVID-19 infection. That number is much lower than the percentages of patients who reported more common symptoms, like fever (87.9%), dry cough (67.7%), and fatigue (38.1%).

However, for individuals with respiratory health conditions—such as asthma or COPD—a stuffy nose may be more prevalent as a symptom. Researchers of a September 2021 Journal of Clinical Medicine study noted that, compared to the general population, individuals with respiratory issues reported more physical COVID-19 symptoms such as fatigue, fever, and a runny or stuffy nose.

How Can You Know if Your Stuffy Nose Is a Symptom of COVID-19?

Like many symptoms of COVID-19, a stuffy nose is a non-specific symptom that can be linked to several illnesses. That's especially true when influenza, allergies, and the common cold begin circulating, Dr. Vyas said.

Thus, the only true way to know if your stuffy nose is a sign of COVID-19 is to get tested—and that decision boils down to your symptoms, circumstances, and your healthcare provider's opinion.

If you've had a stuffy nose for a few days, a good starting point is scheduling an appointment with your healthcare provider—unless, of course, you're experiencing more severe symptoms like having difficulty breathing, which should prompt a visit to an emergency room or urgent care clinic.

Dr. Vyas said that if a patient complains of a stuffy nose, the first thing course of action is trying to get a sense of the patient's COVID-19 risk, plus their general health. "If someone tells me they have a stuffy nose and nothing else, I'll find out their risk [for COVID-19], but I don't jump to the conclusion that it's COVID-19," Dr. Vyas explained. Instead, your healthcare provider might start asking whether or not you suffer from allergies or if you usually get a cold at certain times of the year.

Past that, your lifestyle comes into play. If you've been ignoring social distancing guidelines, going out without a mask on, and failing to wash your hands consistently, for example, a COVID-19 test could very well be the next step. "If you do have a stuffy nose and you haven't been practicing social distancing, you have every right to be concerned," Dr. Vyas said.

However, if you've been observing safety precautions recommended by experts—including getting vaccinated and staying up to date on vaccinations, per the CDC—your healthcare provider might not recommend a COVID-19 test immediately.

How Do You Treat a Stuffy Nose From COVID-19?

Treating nasal congestion due to COVID-19 is similar to treating nasal congestion as a result of any illness, as long as you're not experiencing any severe symptoms like shortness of breath or chest pain. If your symptoms are mild, you can try a few different techniques that help relieve sinus pressure from a stuffy nose, like steam from a humidifier, nasal irrigation via neti pots or nasal sprays, or a bit of decongestant (though that should be used sparingly and at the recommendation of a healthcare provider).

And, as always, your best bet to stay safe from COVID-19 still comes down to getting vaccinations and washing your hands as well as wearing masks and maintaining social distance.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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  2. World Health Organization. WHO-China joint mission on coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).

  3. Wei L, Islam JY, Mascareno EA, Rivera A, Vidot DC, Camacho-Rivera M. Physical and mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic among us adults with chronic respiratory conditions. JCM. 2021;10(17):3981. doi:10.3390/jcm10173981

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Stay up to date with COVID-19 vaccines including boosters.

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