A congested, stuffy nose is a nuisance that can affect your ability to smell, taste and breathe. It is one of the most common complaints, especially when it persists or is accompanied by nasal discharge.
What Causes Nasal Congestion?
Congestion occurs when nasal tissues and blood vessels become swollen and inflamed. It has little to do with excess mucus, as many people believe. This swelling causes obstructed breathing.
Anything that irritates the nasal tissues can cause congestion. The list of possible causes is lengthy and includes infections (colds, influenza and acute or chronic sinusitis), allergies, structural abnormalities (deviated septum, enlarged adenoids/tonsils, nasal polyps or tumors), non-allergic rhinitis, dry air, cold temperatures, bright lights, cluster headaches, hormonal changes, medications, thyroid problems, spicy foods, tobacco smoke and stress.
Home remedies are usually effective in treating congestion. Decongestants (to shrink the blood vessels in the nasal passages) and antihistamines (to reduce the amount of mucus) provide quick relief, but they are only effective for a few days. If used longer, they may actually worsen the condition.
Saline nasal sprays are a better bet, especially when used in conjunction with a humidifier to moisten the air and keep nasal passages from drying out. Drink lots of fluids, especially hot tea, broth or chicken soup.
For infants and younger children – who rely on their nose for breathing – a stuffy nose can be dangerous. Try removing mucus from the nose with a nasal bulb (aspirator) and having your child lie on his or her stomach to help mucus drain. Try saline nose drops (either purchased from a drugstore or homemade by mixing one-quarter teaspoon salt with one-half cup lukewarm water).
Your body produces mucus constantly throughout the day – one to two quarts, to be exact. It mixes with saliva and is swallowed, a normal and harmless response that you usually don’t notice. When excess mucus is created or it is thicker than usual, it becomes noticeable as it runs down the back of the nose to the throat. This is known as postnasal drip.
Causes of Postnasal Drip
An excess of mucus can be caused by a variety of factors. These include colds, flu, allergies, sinus infections, cold temperatures, bright lights, certain foods, hormonal changes (including pregnancy), fumes from chemicals or perfumes, certain types of medications and structural abnormalities such as a deviated septum. The condition might not even be the result of too much mucus, but rather, the inability to clear it away effectively – the result of a swallowing disorder.
Symptoms of Postnasal Drip
The primary symptom of postnasal drip is a sore and irritated throat. Although there is typically no infection accompanying postnasal drip, tissues in the throat may swell. Postnasal drip can cause a number of side effects including cough, sore throat, hoarseness, ear and sinus infections. It is the most common cause of chronic coughing, which can be especially bothersome at night.
Treatment for Postnasal Drip
Treatment for postnasal drip depends on the cause. Over-the-counter medications – antihistamines, decongestants and saline nasal sprays – are often used successfully to manage symptoms. Drugs containing the mucus-thinning agent guaifenesin (Mucinex, Robitussin, etc.) may prove helpful.
You can try irrigating the nasal passages using a neti pot to get rid of excess mucus. Use of a humidifier to moisten the air can also help. If a bacterial infection is the cause, you’ll need antibiotic treatment. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a frequent cause of swallowing problems, can be treated with antacids.