A runny nose is often the result of an infection. In other cases, an irritant or mediation are to blame. The mucus can be clear, colored or thick.
Runny nose symptoms
Drip. Drip. Drip. That's your runny nose, and it's determined to keep you up all night. Nearly everyone has experienced a runny nose, also called rhinorrhea. It may be the calling card of the flu or seasonal allergies that you get from time to time. While the problem usually resolves by itself, for some it can be a more lasting concern that seriously impacts quality of life. The constant chafing against tissues and the long sleepless nights of congestion can certainly take a toll.
A runny nose is often accompanied by other cold- or flu-like symptoms
Other symptoms may include:
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9 Runny nose causes
The inside of the nose is rich with blood vessels and capable of producing large amounts of mucus. This lubricant serves the natural purpose of warming and moistening inhaled air. In some cases, though, this natural function gets out of hand and the excess mucus has to go somewhere out the nostrils or down your throat. A runny nose is often the result of an infection, which mucus helps spread to other people. In other cases, an irritant or mediation are to blame.
Causes of a runny nose related to infection may include the following.
- Common cold: Caused by a virus, a cold comes with runny nose, sore throat, sneezing and cough that last about a week.
- Flu (Influenza): This more serious viral infection lasts longer than the cold and usually accompanied by fever, fatigue and muscle aches.
- Sinus infection: The air-filled areas behind your forehead and cheeks can fill with mucus and become infected.
Causes of a runny nose may be related to irritants in your environment or certain products you use.
- Allergies: Sensitivity to common allergens like pollen or pet dander can cause chronic runny nose as well as itchy eyes and throat.
- Cold temperature: Winter weather is often dry and cold, and mucus production is your body's natural protection again this harsh air.
- Spicy food: That five-alarm chili won't just make your mouth burn. It's also likely to make your eyes tear and your nose run.
- Nasal decongestant sprays: Overuse of over-the-counter nasal sprays like Afrin can sometimes make nasal congestion worse when suddenly stopped.
- Illicit drugs: Drugs that are inhaled through the nose, especially cocaine, can cause irritation and runny nose among many other problems.
- Occupational exposures: Exposure to harsh chemicals or irritants like smoke may notice a runny nose on workdays that resolves when away from work.
Other causes of a runny nose may include the following.
- Prescription drugs: A wide range of medications for conditions like high blood pressure or erectile dysfunction can cause runny nose.
- Foreign body: Children often place objects into their nostrils, and mucus is the body's way of trying to clear out the nasal passages.
- Crying: Excess tears produced during an emotional moment run through the inner corner of the eyes into the nose, where they drop out of the nostrils.
- Masses or polyps: In rare cases, a mass hiding in the nasal passages may be the underlying cause of a runny nose.
- Sleep apnea masks: Positive-pressure breathing machines, such as those used for sleep apnea, can cause runny nose with routine use.
The common cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract, which includes the nose, mouth, sinuses, throat, and larynx. There are over 200 viruses that can cause upper respiratory infections, and usually the exact virus behind a cold is never known.
The common cold is, of course, very common...
New-onset seasonal allergies
New-onset seasonal allergies, also called adult-onset seasonal allergies, are sensitivities to pollen, mold, and other irritants that cause nasal congestion, runny nose, sneezing, itchy eyes, and sore throat.
Seasonal allergies commonly begin in childhood but can start at any age, especially among those with a family history. Moving to a different geographic location may trigger the allergy in someone with a genetic predisposition. Anyone with asthma is more likely to experience adult-onset seasonal allergies.
Sometimes the symptoms are actually from "pregnancy rhinitis" – nasal congestion and sneezing due to the effects of pregnancy hormones on the nasal tissue.
A new-onset allergy is often thought to be a cold, but a cold will clear up without treatment. Allergies persist, never getting better or worse, and can interfere with quality of life.
Diagnosis is made by an allergist, who will use skin tests and blood tests.
There is no cure for seasonal allergies but the symptoms can be managed for greater comfort and relief. Antihistamines, corticosteroid nasal sprays, and immunotherapy or "allergy shots" can be very effective.
Top Symptoms: sore throat, congestion, cough with dry or watery sputum, mucous dripping in the back of the throat, fatigue
Symptoms that never occur with new-onset seasonal allergies:fever, yellow-green runny nose, chills, muscle aches
Rhinitis simply means "inflammation of the nose." When it is caused by something other than allergies, it is called vasomotor rhinitis. "Vasomotor" simply refers to the constriction or dilation of blood vessels.
Different substances can trigger the vasomotor reaction, even though it is not an allergic reaction. Common causes are certain medications; air pollution; and chronic medical conditions.
Symptoms include runny nose, sneezing, congestion, and postnasal drip. Since no allergy is involved, there will not be the scratchy throat or itchy eyes and nose of allergic rhinitis.
A medical provider should be seen for ongoing symptoms, since they can interfere with quality of life. Also, using over-the-counter medications meant for allergic rhinitis will not help in a case of vasomotor rhinitis.
Diagnosis is made through patient history, physical examination, and allergy tests, in order to rule out allergies as a cause of the symptoms.
Treatment involves using the appropriate medications to ease the symptoms, and avoiding any triggers as much as possible.
Top Symptoms: congestion, mucous dripping in the back of the throat, runny nose, frequent sneezing, eye itch
Symptoms that never occur with non-allergic rhinitis: fever, sinus pain, facial fullness or pressure
Chronic sinusitis is also called chronic rhinosinusitis. It is an inflammation of the sinuses, or open spaces of the skull, above and below the eyes. "Chronic," in this case, means the condition has persisted for weeks in spite of treatment and has probably followed several cases of acute sinusitis.
The condition may start with a viral, bacterial, or fungal upper respiratory tract infection; asthma; allergies; or nasal polyps.
Symptoms include facial pain, swelling, and nasal congestion. There is often fatigue; greenish or yellowish nasal discharge; loss of sense of smell; ear pain; cough; and sore throat.
Chronic sinusitis should be seen by a medical provider, especially if symptoms worsen. The condition interferes with quality of life and the ongoing infection can become serious.
Diagnosis is made through patient history; physical examination; sinus cultures; skin tests for allergies; CT scan of the head; and nasal endoscopy (rhinoscopy.)
Treatment may involve saline nasal irrigation; nasal spray corticosteroids; oral corticosteroids; antibiotics for bacterial infection; immunotherapy for allergies; and, in some cases, surgery to remove polyps or other obstructions.
Top Symptoms: fatigue, headache, trouble sleeping, congestion, runny nose
Symptoms that always occur with chronic sinusitis: chronic sinusitis symptoms
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Allergies are an overreaction by the immune system to something that does not bother most other people. Many people who have allergies are sensitive to pollen, but other things such as dust mites, animal dander, cockroaches, and mold can also cause a reaction.
Top Symptoms: fatigue, irritability, trouble sleeping, runny nose, congestion
Symptoms that never occur with chronic allergies: fever, yellow-green runny nose, chills, muscle aches
Acute viral sinusitis
Acute viral sinusitis, also called viral rhinosinusitis or "sinus infection," occurs when viruses take hold and multiply in the sinus cavities of the face.
It is most often caused by the same viruses that cause the common cold and spreads the same way, through an infected person's coughing or sneezing.
Because children have small, underdeveloped sinuses, this illness is far more common in adults.
Symptoms include clear nasal discharge (not greenish or yellowish,) fever, and pain if facial sinuses are pressed.
If there is rash, severe fatigue, or neurologic symptoms (seizures, loss of sensation, weakness, or partial paralysis,) see a medical provider to rule out more serious conditions.
Diagnosis can usually be made through history and examination alone.
Antibiotics only work against bacteria and cannot help against a viral illness. Therefore, treatment consists of rest, fluids, and fever/pain reducers such as ibuprofen. (Do not give aspirin to children.) Symptoms of viral sinusitis last for about seven to ten days. As with the common cold, the best prevention is frequent and thorough handwashing.
Top Symptoms: headache, cough, sinusitis symptoms, sore throat, congestion
Symptoms that always occur with acute viral sinusitis: sinusitis symptoms
Symptoms that never occur with acute viral sinusitis: being severely ill
Infectious mononucleosis, also called "mono" or "kissing disease," can be debilitating for a while but is usually not dangerous in itself.
Several viruses cause mononucleosis. It spreads easily through saliva and other body fluids. Sharing a drinking glass or a spoon, or kissing someone who has the virus – even they show no symptoms – will transmit the disease. It can also be sexually transmitted.
Due to lifestyle, teenagers and young adults seem to be the most susceptible.
Symptoms include tiredness, sore throat, fever, rash, body aches, swelling in the neck and armpits, and sometimes swollen liver and spleen. The symptoms alone are usually enough for the doctor to make a diagnosis.
Because mononucleosis is caused by a virus, antibiotics will not help. Treatment consists of bed rest, fluids, and good nutrition. The patient should still be under a doctor's care due to the risk of secondary infections or damage to the heart, liver, and spleen.
Handwashing, cleanliness, not sharing dishes or drinking glasses, and not having unprotected sex are the best ways to prevent mononucleosis.
Top Symptoms: fatigue, headache, loss of appetite, abdominal pain (stomach ache), cough
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Condition causing abnormal, high-pitched breathing
High-pitched inhaling is called stridor, and requires urgent referral to the ER to see why it's happening
Top Symptoms: high-pitched breathing, severe pelvis pain, arm weakness, loss of vision, chest pain
Urgency: Emergency medical servic
Influenza, or "flu," is a contagious respiratory illness caused by viruses. It is spread through the air by coughing, sneezing, or even talking.
Anyone can get the flu, but those who are very young, over 65, and/or have pre-existing medical conditions are most at risk for complications.
Symptoms include fever, chills, cough, sore throat, body aches, and extreme fatigue. The symptoms may appear very suddenly.
Flu can bring on secondary bacterial infections in the lungs or ears. Dehydration is a great concern because the patient rarely wants to eat or drink.
Diagnosis is usually made by symptoms. There are tests that use a swab taken from the nose or throat, but they are not always accurate or necessary.
Treatment consists mainly of good supportive care, which means providing the patient with rest, fluids, and pain-relieving medication such as ibuprofen. Do not give aspirin to children.
Antibiotics cannot help with the flu, since antibiotics only work against bacteria. There are anti-viral medications that a doctor may prescribe.
The best prevention is an annual flu shot.
Top Symptoms: fatigue, headache, loss of appetite, cough, muscle aches
Symptoms that never occur with influenza: headache resulting from a head injury
Urgency: Phone call or in-person visit
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Runny nose treatments and relief
Mucus production is often the body's natural way of protecting the nasal passages and clearing out any irritants. Many at-home treatments capitalize on this fact and work to help the body's natural cleaning process. There are also many over-the-counter remedies so that most people only need to visit the doctor if a runny nose persists for a very long time or is especially severe. The good news is that, in most cases, a runny nose will simply resolve on its own with time and patience.
To begin combatting runny nose symptoms at home, try the following methods.
- Elevate your head: Sleeping on several pillows at night is a simple technique that can help mucus drain naturally and allow for a better night's sleep.
- Avoid irritants: If you have a sensitive nose, it's best to avoid certain harsh chemicals like household cleaners or smoky environments.
- Cover up in the winter: Loosely covering your nose and mouth with a scarf helps warm outside air and reduces the body's need to produce mucus.
There are many over-the-counter options that may be effective in relieving your symptoms.
- Nasal flush: With special bottles like the Neti Pot, you can use boiled or distilled water to flush out the nose. This very effective method is growing in popularity and does not require the use of any medications.
- Nasal decongestant spray: Sprays like Afrin help to constrict the blood vessels in the nose, which can limit mucus production. However, these sprays should only be used for a limited time to avoid rebound runny nose.
- Decongestant pills: Over-the-counter pills like Sudafed contain decongestants.
- Steroid nasal sprays: Medications like Flonase help to relieve inflammation in the nose, which can reduce mucus production caused by allergies.
- Allergy pills: Zyrtec or Claritin treat the underlying cause of runny nose caused by allergies and help with other allergic symptoms such as itchy, watery eyes. Benadryl also works but may make some people sleepy.
Treatments that will require a consult from your physician include:
- Antibiotics: Rarely, a doctor may suspect a bacterial infection like sinusitis along with your runny nose that will respond to antibiotic treatment.
- Nasopharyngolaryngoscopy: In this procedure, an ear, nose and throat specialist places a small camera in a scope in your nose to determine if there is a mass or structural abnormality causing your symptoms.
When it is an emergency
You should see a doctor right away if you have:
FAQs about runny nose
Here are some frequently asked questions about runny nose.
Why is my nose runny in the morning?
A runny nose (rhinorrhea) in the morning is often caused by allergic rhinitis. Allergic rhinitis is swelling of the mucus membranes and production of mucus because of exposure to some sort of allergen while you are sleeping. This could be anything from dust to dust mites to pollen to the waste of rodents or roaches.
Why is my nose runny in cold weather?
The nose's job is to add moisture to incoming air so that it is less harsh on the sensitive tissues at the back of the throat (humidification). As the nose humidifies air, it produces more liquid or moisture the drier the air is. In sub-freezing temperatures, there is very little moisture in the air.
Can a runny nose cause nose bleeds?
No, not on its own. A runny nose (rhinorrhea) by itself does not cause nose bleeds. Repeated blowing of a runny nose, however, can be irritating to swollen and sensitive mucous membranes and can cause nose bleeds quite commonly. If you develop a nosebleed, you should pinch the nose and hold the head back.
When is a runny nose contagious?
Runny noses (rhinorrhea) are contagious when they are associated with a cold, that is to say when they are not allergic or the product of cold weather. This means that if you have other signs of a cold or a flu including a fever, chills, or a sore throat your runny nose may be contagious.
What does it mean when your nose runs clear liquid?
This is a sign of a runny nose (rhinorrhea) and is the normal drainage. Clear nasal fluid is common in cold weather. Other types of runny noses caused by allergy or infection may also run clear or be colored depending on the specific cause of the nasal discharge.
Questions your doctor may ask about runny nose
- Any fever today or during the last week?
- Do you have a stuffy nose?
- Are you experiencing a headache?
- Do you have a cough?
Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.
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