Nasal congestion is another term for a stuffy or blocked nose – something we all experience from time to time. Though nasal congestion is hardly ever a sign of a something serious, it can be irritating and uncomfortable.
Usually a stuffy nose is caused by a short illness such as a cold, and will clear up on its own within a couple of weeks. Other common causes are allergies especially hay fever.
What causes nasal congestion?
Nasal congestion happens when the tissues and blood vessels inside and around the nose swell up after becoming irritated and inflamed. This happens in response to infection, allergens and irritants.
At the same time, the immune system releases more mucus into the nasal passages to clear out the offending infection or irritant. This mucus is known as catarrh, and can cause a runny nose.
If your sinuses (air-filled spaces behind your forehead and cheekbones) also become inflamed this can lead to a build-up of mucus, and sinus pain i.e. pain, pressure and tenderness around the cheeks and forehead.
Usually nasal congestion is caused by a short illness or a one-off reaction to an allergen or irritant, which means it is short-lived. In some cases, however, nasal congestion can become chronic and require attention from a doctor.
What conditions can cause nasal congestion?
Most people get a stuffy nose after catching a cold or the flu. The infection enters the nasal passages and causes inflammation, triggering the immune system to release more mucus – this results in your nose being blocked and runny. If the inflammation spreads to the sinuses this can cause sinus pain and pressure.
Another common cause is environmental factors. If you have an allergy such as hay fever, coming into contact with your trigger (e.g. pollen) can cause nasal congestion. You might also experience nasal congestion after being exposed to an irritant such as fumes or smoke. Sometimes, extreme weather conditions are enough to trigger a stuffy nose.
Nasal congestion is also a symptom of anatomical abnormalities. If you have nasal polyps (painless growths in the nose) or a deviated septum (a crooked or off-centre septum), you might have trouble breathing and experience chronic congestion in your nasal passages.
Other things that can cause nasal congestion include:
- Hormone changes
- Certain medications such as beta-blockers
- Overuse of nasal decongestant sprays
How can I treat my nasal congestion at home?
If you’ve only been experiencing nasal congestion for a short time it’s advised that you manage your symptoms at home using non-prescription products available in a pharmacy.
You should aim to keep your nasal passages moist, something you can do by:
- Drinking plenty of fluids
- Putting your face over a bowl of hot water and inhaling the steam
- Using a salt water solution to clean your nose
- Putting a warm flannel over your nose and cheeks
You can also visit a pharmacy to buy decongestants, a type of medicine that helps reduce sinus pressure and swelling in the nasal passages. It’s very important that you follow the instructions carefully and don’t use decongestants for longer than recommended. This is because decongestant overuse is known to make nasal congestion worse.
If your stuffy nose has been caused by an allergic reaction, taking antihistamines should work. For best results, use a combination antihistamine/decongestant.
When should I speak to a doctor about nasal congestion?
You should speak to a doctor about your stuffy nose if it isn’t going away, and if it is affecting your quality of life.
It may be that your chronic nasal congestion is being caused by an allergy you aren’t aware you have. For this reason your doctor may send you for allergy tests. You might also require a check for nasal polyps, a deviated septum, or problems with the sinuses.
If your nasal congestion is caused by your working environment you might also be at risk of occupational asthma. This is asthma brought on by the work you do – it can happen in places such as bakeries and manufacturing plants. If you have occupational asthma you’ll need to speak to a doctor about managing your symptoms, avoiding your triggers, and using appropriate treatment.
If you’re concerned about your nasal congestion, you can book an online consultation with Doctor Care Anywhere today to discuss your symptoms.
Content reviewed by Jemma Shafier, a Doctor Care Anywhere GP