How To Get Rid of a Stuffy Nose, Depending on What's Causing It

Find out what's causing you to be so stuffed up and how to get rid of the congestion.

Portrait of sick African American woman sneezes in white tissue, suffers from rhinitis and running nose, has allergy on something, looks unhealthy, feels unwell. Symptoms of cold or allergy.
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If you really want to get rid of a stuffy nose fast, you need to know what's causing it. The problem is that there are several things that can cause a stuffy nose. But we asked experts for advice to help you narrow down what might be causing your stuffiness.

Some 50 million people in the United States are affected by allergies. Common allergens include pollen, pets, dust, mold, and grass. In addition to sneezing and itchy, watery eyes, the classic symptom of allergies is a stopped-up nose.

Allergies

How to get rid of a stuffy nose caused by allergies? The simplest strategy is avoidance. If you know you have an allergy, stay away from your triggers or protect yourself by wearing a mask and taking showers after being outdoors, especially on dry, windy days.

Remedies you can try for allergies include over-the-counter (OTC) antihistamines and saline nasal rinses. OTC antihistamines work by blocking an immune system chemical called histamine, which is involved in allergic reactions. For saline nasal rinses, make sure you use purified (aka distilled), filtered, or boiled water, or consider picking up an OTC saline spray or wash.

The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology recommends nasal steroid sprays in some circumstances. Nasal steroid sprays can be very effective at treating allergies but can have some side effects such as nosebleeds or effects on the eyes.

If nothing clears your stuffed-up, allergic nose, consider allergy shots. "It comes as close [as we have] to a cure for allergies," Christopher Chang, MD, an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist in Warrenton, Virginia, told Health.

If it's not allergies that are causing your congestion, here are several potential other causes and what you can do about each one.

Colds and the Flu

A dramatically stuffed nose is a hallmark symptom of both colds and the flu, which are caused by viruses.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are prescription medications called “antiviral drugs” that can be used to treat flu illness. However, the antivirals must be started within two days of becoming sick with flu symptoms. Antiviral drugs can lessen fever and flu symptoms and shorten the time you are sick by about one day.

Both cold and flu usually go away on their own. However, if you don't take care of them, you could get a secondary infection from bacteria that grow in your "stagnant mucus," Lisa Liberatore, MD, an ENT in New York City, told Health, adding that a secondary infection could be even more serious.

An array of OTC cold and flu medicines containing decongestants (which shrink the inflamed blood vessels blocking your nose) and/or antihistamines can help clear congestion. Nasal rinses can, too, by washing away things like bacteria and allergens.

But other forms of self-care are also key. "I emphasize the importance of hydration, staying away from alcohol, and getting plenty of sleep because lack of sleep [hampers] the immune system," Dr. Liberatore said. "If there's any time you want to prioritize sleep, it would be when you're sick."

Acute Sinusitis

Your sinuses are the cavities in your skull that help drain mucus out of your system. If the sinuses become inflamed (often due to an infection), you could end up with nasal congestion.

Bacteria, viruses, and allergens (such as mold) can cause sinusitis. The condition can be acute, meaning it lasts only a few days to four weeks, or chronic, when it lingers for 12 weeks or more.

If your sinus infection is from bacteria, antibiotics may help, but the best thing you can do for sinusitis caused by a virus is to control the symptoms.

Stay away from antihistamines, which dry things out, Dr. Liberatore said, and instead opt for OTC decongestants, which help drain the sinuses. (Caution: decongestants can raise blood pressure, so if you have hypertension, talk to your healthcare provider before taking them.) Nasal sprays containing steroids may also help.

Once the congestion and stuffy nose of acute sinusitis have eased, flush away the mucus with a saline rinse, Dr. Liberatore said.

Chronic Sinusitis

When inflamed or infected sinuses don't get better, you might have chronic sinusitis, which is when the swelling of the sinuses persists for more than three months.

If decongestants, nasal sprays, and self-care routines like rinsing don't help, you may need to see a specialist who can recommend other medications or may even suggest surgery. Traditional sinus surgery involves taking out infected bone, tissue, or polyps to open up the passages, making more room for mucus to drain.

Balloon sinuplasty is another option. The healthcare provider inserts a balloon into the sinuses, inflates it to stretch the area, then removes it. Or, you might benefit from a stent-like device, which keeps the drainage holes in the sinuses open and releases medicine to help prevent the opening from scarring over.

Deviated Septum

Sometimes a stuffy nose is caused not by outside invaders but by internal structural problems. The most common is a deviated septum. That's when the cartilage-and-bone divider between the nostrils warps out of shape, usually because of an injury such as a broken nose.

One sign of a deviated septum is only being able to breathe out of one side of your nose. "If [the septum] is bent over to one side, it's only going to cause problems on that one side," Dr. Chang said.

Treatment depends on how badly your breathing is affected. If your symptoms are severe enough, the ENT specialist may suggest surgery as an option if medical treatment fails. However, many people need surgery to widen the passages permanently. Procedures to repair a deviated septum are usually quick (30 to 90 minutes) and can be done with a local or general anesthetic.

Pregnancy

Certain things you expect with pregnancy: a protruding belly, morning sickness, swollen feet. So a stuffy nose when you're expecting may take you by surprise. It's called rhinitis of pregnancy and is due to more blood flowing into the soft tissue of the nose, Dr. Liberatore said. Some people escape the problem, but if you do develop a blocked nose, it can last the entire nine months.

The condition isn't life-threatening, but treating it with medicines can be risky. Instead, most pregnant people have to rely on saline rinses. "It may seem low-tech, but it actually really does help move any stagnant mucus out of your nose," Dr. Liberatore said. That will help prevent a secondary bacterial infection and can relieve the pressure you might be feeling.

If you have a deviated septum, talk to your healthcare provider about correcting it before getting pregnant, as surgery isn't an option once you're expecting, Dr. Liberatore said.

Enlarged Adenoids

Enlarged adenoids are a common problem in children that can make it hard to breathe. The adenoids are folds of tissue at the back of the throat, which, in a child under five years, help stave off infections. After age five, the adenoids shrink and aren't as involved in fighting off infections.

Sometimes, though, infections cause swelling in the adenoids. This can leave your child with not just a congested nose but blocked ears and chapped lips from breathing through the mouth.

Nasal spray or antibiotics may make the symptoms manageable. Some children will have to have their adenoids removed though, especially if they have trouble sleeping.

Nasal Polyps

Nasal polyps are soft noncancerous growths on the lining of the sinuses and nasal passages. Inflammation causes the lining of the nose to blister. While scientists don't know exactly why this happens, nasal polyps are associated with asthma, recurrent infections, and allergies.

Polyps usually don't hurt, but if they become big enough, they can block the sinuses and nasal passages, giving you a stuffy nose. They can also impair your sense of smell and taste. If you have cystic fibrosis or asthma, you may be more susceptible to developing nasal polyps.

For about 10% to 20% of people with these growths, oral or nasal steroids are enough to shrink the polyps and prevent them from coming back, Dr. Chang said. Everyone else is a candidate for surgery, but even that may not be enough. "Once you get them, they tend to come back," Dr. Chang said.

Some people may need more than one surgery; others may need to stay on medication for years. If nasal polyps do return, you'll need to be diligent about preventing the triggers of the polyps, like infections, Dr. Chang said.

Narrow Nasal Passages

Some people happen to be born with narrow nasal passages. If you're one of them, you may also suffer from a perpetually stuffed nose. This can be caused by overly large turbinates. Turbinates are small structures inside the nose that cleanse and humidify the air that passes through the nostrils into the lungs.

If you have narrow nasal passages, you might find breathing to be difficult just some of the time. "If [people with narrow nasal passages] breathe slowly through their nose then they're just fine," Dr. Chang said. "But if they try to breathe quickly, the airway collapses, and they end up having to mouth breathe."

Surgery to reduce the size of the turbinates may be necessary, although some allergy meds and steroid sprays may also help.

Irritants

Other places to look for the cause of your congested nose are triggers in your environment. Nonallergic rhinopathy is the medical term for when neither hay fever nor an infection is stuffing up your nose. Unfortunately, the exact causes of nonallergic rhinopathy are unknown.

Symptoms are triggered by something that irritates the nose and leads to congestion. Fragrances are a common culprit. Places where fragrances show up include perfumes, candles, and air fresheners.

Not only can fragrances stuff up your nose, they can also cut off your sense of smell, which can in turn stuff up your nose even more. "You're using more [product] because you're not appreciating the smell, then all those chemicals are irritating the nasal cavities," Dr. Liberatore said.

If you think products could be contributing to your stuffy nose, look for fragrance-free options.

Other things that irritate the nose include dry air, air pollution, and spicy foods. Even strong emotions like stress can trigger a bout of nonallergic rhinopathy.

If it's not hay fever or an infection that's got you stuffed up, try removing these irritants from your environment. If that doesn't do the trick, talk to a healthcare provider. Healthcare providers can help you find your trigger and determine the best course of treatment.

Runny Nose Due to COVID-19

Along with fever, cough, and shortness of breath, nasal congestion and runny nose are possible symptoms of COVID-19. The CDC says don't just ignore the problem if you think your nasal symptoms are related to COVID-19. Anyone who has symptoms should get tested.

Even if your illness is mild, you should stay home, except to seek medical care. The CDC recommends resting, hydrating, and taking OTC medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen to help you feel better. You'll also want to monitor your symptoms and contact your healthcare provider about the next steps. Anyone who develops breathing difficulties, chest pain or pressure, or other concerning symptoms should seek emergency medical care.

When To Call Your Healthcare Provider About a Stuffy Nose

It's time to see a healthcare provider if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  • A stuffy nose with swelling of the forehead, eyes, side of the nose, or cheek, or that occurs with blurred vision
  • More throat pain, or white or yellow spots on the tonsils or other parts of the throat
  • Discharge from the nose that has a bad smell, comes from only one side, or is a color other than white or yellow
  • Cough that lasts longer than 10 days, or produces yellow-green or gray mucus
  • Nasal discharge following a head injury
  • Symptoms that last more than 3 weeks

If you have nasal discharge with fever, consider getting tested for an infection. If you have an infection, you'll want to know so you don't spread it to others. Some COVID-19 tests can also tests for the flu at the same time.

Treatments for a stuffy nose run the gamut, and most healthcare providers start with the least invasive option before working their way up to more extensive measures.

A Quick Review

Stuffy noses can have a variety of causes. Allergies, a cold, the flu, COVID-19, and sinus infections may be the first culprits that come to mind. Structural problems and enlarged glands can plug up your nose. And if it's none of the above, it could be irritants in your environment.

Before you can treat your nasal congestion, you'll need to know what's causing it. It could clear up on its own or with OTC remedies. But if it doesn't or you don't know what is causing it, your best resource will be a healthcare provider. Healthcare providers can check your symptoms and figure out what's best for your situation.

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Sources
Health.com 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.
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