Team AckoSept 21, 2023
Having a stuffy nose is uncomfortable. That sensation of being unable to breathe can affect the quality of life and cause irritation. Nasal Congestion (NC) refers to this sensation of a stuffy or blocked nose, where free breathing feels impaired. It is a common symptom that affects people across all age groups. Luckily, most of the causes of NC aren’t that serious. Here’s an overview of this topic.
Nasal Congestion occurs as a result of inflammation or swelling. The inside of the nose is partitioned in two passages. On the sides, there are bony structures that protrude into the canal. The nasal passage has tissues which help in filtering the air and keeping the region moistened. The nasal passage also has a rich blood supply with several blood vessels.
NC primarily occurs due to inflammation of the lining membranes and blood vessels in the nose and adjacent structures. The nasal canal is a narrow passage, and any inflammation infringes into this space, causing the sensation of a stuffed, blocked, or plugged nose.
Nasal Congestion in itself is a symptom, and not a disease. It can be associated with other symptoms that give an idea of the underlying cause. Some of the commonly associated symptoms include the following.
Nasal discharge/runny nose (rhinorrhea)
Loss of smell
A sensation of heaviness of the head
Pain behind the eyes (retro-orbital pain)
Nasal discharge is the most common associated symptom. It is usually clear or at times yellowish-green due to an infection. Rarely, the discharge from your nose can be bloody. If you are experiencing bloody nasal discharge, consult your doctor immediately for further evaluation.
There are many causes of Nasal Congestion. Mostly, it occurs due to an irritation of the nasal lining. The common causes resulting in NC are listed below.
Allergy: A common condition called hay fever (allergic rhinitis) is a frequent cause of NC. It is an allergic response to pollen/dust that is seen seasonally. Other conditions like asthma, wheezing, etc., are also induced by allergies to specific components in the inhaled air.
Infection: The most common infections resulting in NC include the common cold, influenza, sinusitis (acute and chronic).
Deviated nasal septum: This is a structural abnormality where the nasal septum is slanted more towards one side, resulting in a narrowing of space in that passage & consequent nasal blockage.
Enlarged adenoids: The adenoids are specialised immune structures seen at the back of the nose, and they can become enlarged. This blocks the nasal passage, and may cause issues with breathing and speaking. This is commonly seen in children.
Living in areas with dry air and low humidity.
Pregnancy: Hormonal changes in pregnancy can cause an increase in blood flow to the nose which results in a swelling of the vessels and blockage of the passage.
Overuse of nasal decongestant sprays: While nasal decongestant sprays are developed to ease the issue, prolonged use of them can actually increase NC. This condition is called Rhinitis Medicamentosa. The commonly used medicines in these sprays which result in this issue include oxymetazoline, xylometazoline, phenylephrine, etc.
Polyps: Nasal polyps are sac-like, non-cancerous growths that can obstruct the passage and cause congestion.
Side effects of medications: Some medicines used to treat high blood pressure, seizures, and mental health disorders can cause NC as a side effect.
Exposure to tobacco smoke
Vasomotor Rhinitis : This is a condition where there is Nasal Congestion and discharge chronically without either an allergic/infectious agent causing the inflammation.
More uncommonly, Nasal Congestion can occur due to tumours or cancerous growths in the nose, or in the face protruding into the nasal cavity. Basically, any condition that is blocking the nasal passage causes NC.
Nasal Congestion is often a short-term symptom and resolves generally with measures like home remedies and over-the-counter medicines. However, if it is long-lasting, recurs very often, or is associated with any of the symptoms mentioned above, you are advised to consult your doctor.
Your doctor, after a physical examination, may order some blood tests and radiological examinations (X-rays/ CT/ MRI). With the help of these tests, your doctor may be able to find the underlying cause and treat it.
The treatment of Nasal Congestion can be targeted at symptomatic relief, and managing the underlying cause. The following measures are modalities by which relief from symptoms can be achieved.
Avoid exposure to known allergens as well as common environmental allergens like pollen, dust, etc.
Steam inhalation is one of the best ways to clear a blocked nose. Adding essential oils such as peppermint oil aids in the process.
Over-the-counter medications belonging to a class of drugs called Antihistamines are recommended for symptomatic relief. Some of these medications have a common side effect of drowsiness and sedation. Hence it is recommended to use these tablets once a day at night.
Nasal decongestant sprays like oxymetazoline & xylometazoline are available. These sprays should not be used for a prolonged period as they may cause rebound Nasal Congestion.
Saline sprays or rinsing the nasal passage with saline helps with clearing mucus.
If symptoms persist, you should consult your doctor for further evaluation and targeted treatment for your underlying cause of symptoms.
Nasal Congestion in infants is a cause for concern. Infants primarily breathe through only the nose during the first few months of life. Prolonged NC in infants can result in poor feeding and other breathing problems in the long term. If you notice your infant having nasal discharge, difficulty in feeding, or other breathing symptoms, consult your paediatrician immediately.
Children commonly face NC, and this can be associated with a multitude of symptoms like headache, difficulty in breathing, cough, fever, ear pain, etc. This can affect their daily activities significantly. It is therefore important to consult with your child’s doctor to resolve the issue at the earliest to prevent impairment to their health and routines.
My nose feels congested for the last two days. What should I do?
Doctors recommend drinking enough water and regular steam inhalation at home to treat Nasal Congestion. They may also prescribe tablets to reduce inflammation.
I get Nasal Congestion multiple times a year. What should I do?
Allergic rhinitis is a common cause of Nasal Congestion. It is important to avoid triggers such as dust and mites to reduce the frequency of episodes. In the case of longstanding NC, it is advisable to consult a doctor to find the exact underlying problem.
My 7-year-old son always has a stuffy nose and difficulty breathing. Could it be a serious problem?
Often children who are more prone to allergies suffer from constant Nasal Congestion and may even develop asthma. To ensure your child's comfort, it is best to consult a paediatrician who can guide you regarding further treatment.
Can Nasal Congestion be dangerous?
Most of the time, Nasal Congestion is not associated with any serious symptoms. Rarely there may be a blockage in the cavity that needs surgical intervention. An ENT specialist (otorhinolaryngologist) or allergy specialist can give the appropriate guidance.
Disclaimer: The content on this page is generic and shared only for informational and explanatory purposes. Please consult a doctor before making any health-related decisions. Nasal Congestion is written as NC on some occasions in this article.
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