Runny nose or stuffy nose? Here's what to do

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Runny nose or stuffy nose? Here's what to do

Runny nose or stuffy nose — Breathe easier with these self-care tips.

You might have a runny or stuffy nose because of a cold, the flu, seasonal allergies — even stress. If so, your nose problem will probably clear on its own. Here are some tips to help you breathe more easily until it does.

Runny nose: Where does all that mucus come from?

Glands in your nose and sinuses continually produce mucus — as much as 1 to 2 quarts a day. The mucus cleans and moisturizes your nasal membranes and helps fight infection. You're probably not aware of this until your body steps up mucus production, usually in an effort to clear cold or flu viruses or allergens from your nasal passages. Cold temperatures, spicy food and hormonal changes also can trigger a runny nose.

Is it serious?
A runny nose is usually just an annoyance. But it can be a sign of a more serious problem. See your doctor if:

  • Your symptoms last more than three weeks, or you have a fever along with your runny nose.
  • Your nasal discharge is thick, green or yellow in color, and accompanied by sinus pain. This may be a sign of a bacterial infection.
  • Your nose is persistently runny on one side only. In a child, this might be a sign that a small object is lodged in that nostril.
  • You have blood in your nasal discharge or a persistent clear discharge after a head injury.
  • You have asthma or emphysema, or you're on immune-suppressing medications.

What will help?
Gentle blowing is often the only treatment you need for a runny nose. But if the discharge is persistent and watery, an over-the-counter antihistamine may be helpful, especially if your runny nose is allergy related. Be sure to follow the label instructions exactly. Some antihistamines make you drowsy and can interact with other medications and alcohol. And by slowing the flow of mucus, they cause germs to stay in your nasal passages longer.

For babies and small children, use a soft rubber suction bulb to gently remove the secretions. Don't give antihistamines to children unless your doctor recommends them.

Postnasal drip: Common companion to a runny nose

The mucus your nose produces travels in a thin film down the back of your throat. It traps allergens and germs and disposes of them through your digestive system. Normally, you swallow the mucus without knowing it. But when there's more mucus than usual, you may feel the postnasal drip accumulating in the back of your throat.

What will help?
In addition to being uncomfortable, postnasal drip can cause a cough, sore throat or constant throat clearing. To help relieve these symptoms:

  • Avoid irritants. Common irritants that may stimulate mucus production include cigarette smoke and sudden temperature changes — going from extreme heat into air conditioning, for instance.
  • Drink plenty of water. Staying hydrated keeps your postnasal mucus thin and easier to swallow.
  • Use a humidifier. Dry air thickens and dries mucus in your nose and throat.
  • Try saline sprays or rinses. Saltwater rinses and saline sprays thin your mucus and get rid of irritants. You can buy saline nasal sprays in most drugstores. Or you can make your own. Dissolve about 1/4 teaspoon salt in 2 cups of warm distilled water. Use a suction bulb to place the solution in your nose or put some of the warm salt water in the cup of your hand, and then sniff it up, one nostril at a time.
  • See your doctor. If the problem persists and other measures don't help, see your doctor for other options.

Stuffy nose: When nasal passages close up

A stuffy nose can be just as uncomfortable as a runny one, and often the causes are the same: a cold or the flu; allergies to dust, pollen or pet dander; or a nonallergic inflammation of your nasal blood vessels (vasomotor rhinitis). This occurs when the blood vessels in your nose expand in response to exercise, cold air, spicy food, even stress. A number of medications also can dry out your nose and throat, including:

  • Diuretics
  • Anti-anxiety medications
  • Birth control pills and erectile dysfunction medications such as Viagra
  • Beta blockers
  • Nasal decongestants, especially when used for more than a few days

Less often, a stuffy nose may result from a deformity in the bony partition separating your two nasal chambers (nasal septum) or a growth in your nasal passage, such as a nasal polyp.

Is it serious?
Although nasal congestion is just an annoyance for most older children and adults, it can be serious in infants. Babies who are congested in the first months of life have trouble nursing and can experience breathing problems. If your child is younger than 3 months, call your doctor at the first sign of illness. You can usually treat an older baby's stuffy nose by giving plenty of fluids, moistening the air in your home, suctioning the baby's nose and using a saline nasal spray or homemade nasal wash.

What will help?
Try these measures to relieve your stuffy nose:

  • Steam. One of the simplest ways to break up congestion is to inhale steam from a hot shower or a kettle of boiling water. Bring 4 to 6 cups of water to a boil, then make a tent over your head with a bath towel to concentrate the steam. Adding 3 drops of eucalyptus oil to the water may provide even more benefit. Be patient; it may take 10 to 15 minutes for this method to work.
  • Fluids. Drink plenty of liquids, such as water, juice or tea to help thin mucus. Avoid caffeinated beverages, which can cause dehydration and aggravate your symptoms.
  • Chicken soup. Lots of soups are soothing, but chicken soup has been shown to speed the movement of mucus through the nasal passages. This helps relieve congestion and limit the amount of time viruses are in contact with the nasal lining.
  • Salt water. Use an over-the-counter nasal saline spray or prepare your own saltwater solution. Both can be extremely effective at relieving congestion.
  • Breathing strips. Most drugstores and some supermarkets sell adhesive strips that you place across the bridge of your nose. These strips open the nasal passages, allowing you to breathe more freely.
  • Decongestants. Beware of over-the-counter decongestants. If used for more than 2 or 3 days, they can actually make congestion worse. All decongestants — oral or topical — may have a stimulant effect and raise blood pressure in some people. Children shouldn't use them at all; there's no evidence that they work in children, and they can have serious side effects. Gentler options such as steam, nasal rinses and breathing strips are more effective and don't have side effects.

Last Updated: 09/15/2006
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