Definition of nasal congestion
Nasal congestion or “stuffy nose” occurs when nasal and adjacent tissues and blood vessels become swollen with excess fluid, causing a “stuffy” feeling. Nasal congestion may or may not be accompanied by a nasal discharge or “runny nose.”
Nasal congestion usually is just an annoyance for older children and adults. But nasal congestion can be serious in infants, who might have a hard time nursing or breathing as a result.
Causes of nasal congestion
Nasal congestion can be caused by anything that irritates or inflames the nasal tissues. Infections — such as colds, influenza or sinusitis — allergies and various irritants, such as tobacco smoke, may all cause a runny nose. Some people have a chronically runny nose for no apparent reason — a condition called nonallergic rhinitis or vasomotor rhinitis (VMR).
Less commonly, nasal congestion can be caused by polyps or a tumor. Other potential causes of nasal congestion include:
- Acute sinusitis
- Bright lights
- Chronic sinusitis
- Churg-Strauss syndrome
- Cluster headache
- Cold temperature
- Common cold
- Decongestant nasal spray overuse
- Deviated septum
- Drug addiction
- Dry air
- Dust mite allergy
- Enlarged adenoids
- Food allergy
- Foreign body in the nose
- Hay fever
- High blood pressure medications
- Hormonal changes
- Influenza (flu)
- Latex allergy
- Milk allergy
- Mold allergy
- Nasal polyps
- Nonallergic rhinitis
- Occupational asthma
- Other infections
- Peanut allergy
- Pet allergy
- Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)
- Shellfish allergy
- Soy allergy
- Spicy foods
- Thyroid problems
- Tobacco smoke
- Wegener’s granulomatosis
- Wheat allergy
When to see a doctor
A stuffy or runny nose is usually just an annoyance. But it can be a sign of a more serious problem, and it may be serious in infants.
Call your doctor if:
- Your symptoms last more than 10 days.
- You have a high fever, particularly if it lasts more than three days.
- Your nasal discharge is green and is accompanied by sinus pain or fever. This may be a sign of a bacterial infection.
- You have asthma or emphysema, or you’re taking immune-suppressing medications.
- You have blood in your nasal discharge or a persistent clear discharge after a head injury.
Call your child’s doctor if:
- Your child is younger than 2 months and has a fever.
- Your baby’s runny nose or congestion causes trouble nursing or makes breathing difficult.
Until you see your doctor, try these simple steps to relieve symptoms:
- Sniffing and swallowing or gently blowing your nose.
- If the runny nose is a persistent, watery discharge, particularly if accompanied by sneezing and itchy or watery eyes, your symptoms may be allergy-related, and an over-the-counter antihistamine may help. Be sure to follow the label instructions exactly.
- For babies and small children, use a soft, rubber-bulb syringe to gently remove any secretions.
Try these measures to relieve postnasal drip — when excess mucus accumulates in the back of your throat:
- Avoid common irritants such as cigarette smoke and sudden temperature changes.
- Drink plenty of water.
- Use a humidifier.
- Try nasal saline sprays or rinses.