How Can Having a Stuffy Nose Be a Sign of 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 Exactly?

Research has suggested that nasal congestion might be lower on the list of most common COVID-19 symptoms.

One 2020 review indicated that, across five studies, 3.7% of 1,556 patients with COVID-19 had nasal congestion. Researchers of a 2021 review including 14 studies noted a similar percentage of 3-4.8% among 2,971 patients. These percentages were much lower compared to percentages for other symptoms like fever, cough, and fatigue.

Even with lower reporting of nasal congestion as a sign of COVID-19, a stuffy nose can be one of the earlier symptoms of COVID-19. Researchers of a 2021 study followed the nose-related symptoms of 517 COVID-19 patients. They found that any nasal congestion due to the infection began as early as two weeks before an official COVID-19 diagnosis.

A stuffy nose has also been reported to show up more often in certain individuals. For example, nasal congestion has been more common in children with COVID-19. Additionally, for individuals with respiratory health conditions—such as asthma or COPD—having nasal congestion may be more prevalent as a symptom.

Researchers of a 2021 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, said Dr. Vyas.

Thus, the only true way to know if your stuffy nose is a sign of COVID-19 is to get tested.

If you've had a stuffy nose for a few days, a good starting point is scheduling an appointment with a healthcare provider. But experiencing more severe symptoms, like having difficulty breathing, 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 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," explained Dr. Vyas.

A healthcare provider might also 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 environment comes into play. For example, if you've been in an area where COVID-19 levels are high and you may have been exposed to it, a COVID-19 test could very well be the next step.

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, such as:

  • Steam from a humidifier
  • Nasal irrigation via neti pots or nasal sprays
  • A bit of decongestant (though it 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, washing your hands, wearing masks when necessary, and social distancing.

A Quick Review

Having a stuffy nose, or nasal congestion, can be a sign of COVID-19. It's a common symptom that can show up more in children and individuals with respiratory issues.

The only way to know for certain that you have a stuffy nose due to COVID-19 is to get tested. However, a healthcare provider will also consider other factors that might be causing your stuffy nose.

Regardless of the cause, you can generally treat a stuffy nose due to COVID-19 using the same methods you might use if the congestion was caused by another illness or infection.

COVID-19 Disclaimer: 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 CDCWHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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