Read below about congestion, including causes, treatment options and remedies. Or get a personalized analysis of your congestion from our A.I. health assistant. At Buoy, we build tools that help you know what’s wrong right now and how to get the right care.

This symptom can also be referred to as:
Can't breathe through nose

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Congestion Symptoms

Spring has sprung. The leaves and flowers are in bloom, which can be a beautiful sight, until your eyes seem almost swollen shut and you can hardly breathe through your nose. You've got a severe case of a "stuffy nose" or nasal congestion.

You've been buying the drugstore out of Kleenex and allergy medicine and checking the pollen score online daily. But maybe it's not just allergies. Maybe it's caused by a viral or bacterial infection that's only aggravated by allergies.

Nasal congestion, which causes that chronic stopped up nose, is one of the most common conditions people suffer from. It is also highly treatable if you recognize its symptoms and treat it the right way.

Let's talk about what nasal congestion can mean and how to know if you have a serious infection causing your discomfort. [1,3]

Common symptoms of nasal congestion are:

  • Being unable to breathe through your nose. [2]
  • Feeling like there is something in your nose. [1]
  • Clear or yellow discharge from your nose. [5]
  • Clear or yellow discharge in the back of your throat. [5]
  • Cough, especially when lying down. [3]
  • Headache. [3]

More serious nasal congestion symptoms, especially in kids include:

Congestion Causes Overview

Most nasal congestion symptoms are caused by viral infections of the upper airways. Allergies and inflammation of the sinuses (air-filled pockets in the bones of the skull) are common causes of nasal congestion as well. Congestion is rarely a sign of a serious illness, but, in rare cases, it can be caused by serious infections like pneumonia or bronchitis. Left to fester, these infections can seriously threaten life and health. Upper respiratory infections can lead to ear infections and pneumonia can be deadly if untreated. [1]

Infectious nasal congestion causes:

  • Viral infections: Probably the most common cause is the common cold. [2]
  • Bacterial infections: Especially sinus infections, these can lead to a stuffy nose and often a thick, yellow discharge from the nose. [3]
  • Influenza: Also caused by a viral infection, the flu can make your nose stuffed. [5]

Inflammatory and allergic nasal congestion causes:

  • Sinusitis: Although many cases of sinusitis are from an infection, the sinuses can be inflamed without an infection and cause severe headache and nasal congestion. This can be acute or chronic. [2]
  • Allergies: Whatever the cause, allergies can make your head feel like it is clogged and it will never get better. [2]
  • Chronic sinusitis: This condition is diagnosed when the nasal passages stay inflamed for 12 weeks or longer. This can be caused by infections or nasal polyps, growths in the nasal passages, or a deviated septum. [1,2]

Other nasal congestion causes:

  • Foreign bodies: Kids often attempt to shove foreign objects in their nose or may playfully "sniff" things they shouldn't — dirt, sand, flour, powder, etcetera—and this can lead to a foul-smelling situation typically stemming from one nostril. [1]
  • Deviated septum: The bone that separates the inside of the nose into right and left nostrils can bend toward one side and lead to chronic stuffiness and even polyps in the nose. [1]
  • Irritation: Dry air, smoke, and chemicals can all lead to congestion. [1]
  • Overuse of decongestants: Abusing nasal decongestants can lead to a "rebound" stuffy nose that is worse than the one you started with. So,use these only as directed. [1]

A.I. Health Assistant Causes for Congestion

The list below shows results from the use of our A.I. Health Assistant by Buoy users who experienced congestion. This list does not constitute medical advice.

  1. 1.Common Cold

    The common cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract.

    The common cold resolves within 7 to 10 days.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, headache, cough, sore throat, congestion
    Symptoms that never occur with common cold:
    being severely ill, severe muscle aches, rash, severe headache, sinus pain
    Urgency:
    Self-treatment
  2. 2.New - Onset Seasonal Allergies

    Allergic rhinitis, is an overreaction by the immune system to allergens in the air. While pollen often causes allergies, other culprits include dust, animal dander, and mold.

    Allergies are often seasonal.

    Rarity:
    Common
    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
    Urgency:
    Self-treatment
  3. 3.Chronic Sinusitis

    Chronic sinusitis is an inflammation of the sinuses (hollow cavities behind the nose & cheeks) that lasts more than 12 weeks and can continue for months or years.

    Longer than 3 months.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, headache, trouble sleeping, congestion, runny nose
    Symptoms that always occur with chronic sinusitis:
    chronic sinusitis symptoms
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  4. 4.Acute Viral Sinusitis

    Sinusitis is an inflammation of the sinus spaces behind the nose and cheeks. These spaces produce mucus, which drains into the nose. If the nose is swollen or if the mucus does not drain, this can block the sinuses and cause pain or infection.

    Symptoms should subside within 7-10 days

    Rarity:
    Common
    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
    Urgency:
    Self-treatment
  5. 5.Acute Bacterial Sinusitis

    Acute bacterial sinusitis occurs when the sinuses become infected and, in turn, inflamed, which causes pain and other symptoms. The sinuses are air-filled cavities in the face that are generally clean and empty but when they're sick collect excess mucus and can become infected. When your symptoms are persisting for 10 days or more or are getting worse over time, it's more likely that you'll have a bacterial infection as compared to a viral infection.

    7-15 days

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, headache, cough, sinusitis symptoms, muscle aches
    Symptoms that always occur with acute bacterial sinusitis:
    sinusitis symptoms
    Symptoms that never occur with acute bacterial sinusitis:
    clear runny nose, being severely ill
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor

    Congestion Checker

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    Congestion Quiz
  6. 6.Sarcoidosis

    Sarcoidosis is an inflammatory disease that most often affects the lungs and skin, but can als affect the joints.

    This condition has a broad range of severity. It often goes away on its own over time but some cases can cause permanent damage.

    Rarity:
    Rare
    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, headache, shortness of breath, loss of appetite, joint pain
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  7. 7.Viral Throat Infection

    Viral pharyngitis is an inflammation of the pharynx, the part of the throat between the nasal cavity and mouth, which causes throat pain.

    Symptoms generally resolve within 3-4 days

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    sore throat, cough, congestion, fever, hoarse voice
    Symptoms that always occur with viral throat infection:
    sore throat
    Symptoms that never occur with viral throat infection:
    being severely ill
    Urgency:
    Self-treatment
  8. 8.Non - Allergic Rhinitis

    Nonallergic rhinitis is a medical condition which involves chronic (persistent) sneezing and having a runny, congested nose without any apparent cause. While the symptoms of nonallergic rhinitis are similar to those of allergic rhinitis (hay fever), there is no allergic reaction. Nonallergic rhinitis can be triggered by certain odors, weather changes, medications, or foods.

    Long-term condition but may go away without treatment.

    Rarity:
    Common
    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
    Urgency:
    Self-treatment
  9. 9.Cluster Headache

    A cluster headache is a type of recurring headache that is moderate to severe in intensity. It is often one-sided head pain that may involve tearing of the eyes and a stuffy nose. Attacks can occur regularly for 1 week and up to 1 year. Each period of attacks (i.e. each cluster) is separated by pain-free periods that last at least 1 month or longer. Other common headaches may also occur during these cluster-free periods.

    Each attack can last from 15 min to 3 hours and occurs from once every other day up to 8 times per day. Cluster periods usually resolve in a few weeks to months but can last up to a year.

    Rarity:
    Uncommon
    Top Symptoms:
    severe headache, nausea, throbbing headache, history of headaches, sensitivity to light
    Symptoms that always occur with cluster headache:
    severe headache
    Urgency:
    Hospital emergency room
  10. 10.Influenza

    Influenza, or Flu, is an infection of the airway caused by the flu virus, which passes through the air and enters the body through the nose or mouth. The symptoms are similar to those of a cold, but the flu is usually more serious.

    Most recover within 1 week but cough and malaise can persist for 2 weeks.

    Rarity:
    Common
    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

Congestion Treatments and Relief

There are many effective home remedies for nasal congestion as long as you keep your therapies focused on moisture — not dry forms of nasal congestion treatment. Many people think you need to "dry out" a runny nose, but you really need wet heat and steam to sooth your nasal passages. [3]

Good remedies for nasal congestion symptoms include:

  • Drinking hot, steamy fluids (think hot tea). [3]
  • Staying hydrated. [3]
  • Humidifying the air, especially in your bedroom. [3]
  • Taking a long, hot shower or bath. [3]
  • Nasal rinses with saline solution or using a Neti-pot — salt water actually hydrates nasal passages. [3]

There are several over-the-counter medications and remedies that can help you feel less congested as well.

  • Decongestants. [3]

    • Pseudoephedrine pills. [9]
    • Decongestant nasal sprays — be sure not to over-use these or you will get worse. [3]
  • Acetaminophen or ibuprofen if your stuffiness is giving you a headache. [5]

  • Antihistamines such as Benadryl or loratadine. [10]

  • Nasal steroid sprays, helpful for chronic sinusitis and congestion from allergies. [11]

  • Minimize exposure to smoke and allergens. [1]

In the event you have a bacterial infection, which your doctor can diagnose, a short course of antibiotics is often needed. [1]

If you have a foreign body in your nose, obviously you need to seek medical care to have the foreign body removed. [1] Likewise, if your nasal congestion symptoms are chronic and possibly due to a deviated septum, that requires seeing an otolaryngologist (an ear, nose, and throat doctor) to discuss appropriate treatment. [1]

FAQs About Congestion

Here are some frequently asked questions about congestion.

What causes congestion?

Mucosal inflammation (inflammation of the inner lining of the nose) is the primary cause of nasal congestion. Congestion is described as the feeling of reduced airflow through the nose and a sense of facial fullness. [1] Inflammation of or around the nerves of the face can also lead to changes in sensation and altered perception of both taste and smell. [12] Reduced airflow can occur when inflamed and swollen mucosa (lining of the inner nose) block adequate drainage of the nose. [1,2]

What causes a stuffy nose?

A stuffy nose is caused by an increase in mucus creation by the nasal mucosa as well as swelling of the nasal mucosa. This increase in mucus and swelling can cause a blockage of the nasal pathway. It is often accompanied by an uncomfortable feeling of nasal fullness causing individuals to try to expel mucus from the nose by blowing into a tissue. It may be accompanied by the loss of taste or smell and increased pressure along the maxillary sinuses. [1,2,11]

What causes head congestion?

Head congestion or sinus pain is caused by moderate to severe rhinitis or congestion that causes blockage of the sinuses of the skull. The sinuses are empty spaces or cavities within the skull existing most notably behind the cheekbones. When they are blocked, because they are unable to drain, fluid builds up increasing pressure which often causes discomfort. Lowering one's head moves this fluid further irritating nerves and causing pain. [2,11]

How to reduce nasal congestion?

Nasal congestion can be reduced by decreasing inflammation or allowing mucus to leave the sinuses. Steam from tea, soup, or a warm shower moistens mucus membranes and heats and thins mucus allowing it to drain. In moderate cases of sinus congestion, nasal spray or oral decongestants, antihistamines, or intranasal steroids can be used to decrease inflammation and allow mucus drainage decreasing sinus pressure. [1,3]

How to relieve severe nasal congestion?

Severe nasal congestion due to allergies can be treated with antihistamines, which decrease production of mucus and inflammatory compounds in the body; [3] with intranasal steroids like mometasone, which decrease inflammation; [11] or with saline irrigation (saltwater nasal rinses.) [11] Non-allergic rhinitis can be treated with decongestants, either oral or nasal. [11] Additionally, pain may be treated with over-the-counter pain medications like acetaminophen. [11] Bacterial sinusitis which is severe and is accompanied by pus drainage from the nose may require prescribed antibiotics. [11]

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Congestion

  • Q.Any fever today or during the last week?
  • Q.Do you have a cough?
  • Q.Are you experiencing a headache?
  • Q.Do you have a runny nose?

If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions, try our congestion symptom checker to find out more.

Congestion Quiz

Congestion Symptom Checker Statistics

  • People who have experienced congestion have also experienced:

    • 12% Cough
    • 8% Mouth Breathing
    • 7% Sore Throat
  • People who have experienced congestion had symptoms persist for:

    • 45% Less Than a Week
    • 17% Less Than a Day
    • 13% One to Two Weeks
  • People who have experienced congestion were most often matched with:

    • 60% Chronic Sinusitis
    • 20% Common Cold
    • 20% New - Onset Seasonal Allergies
  • Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from visits to the Buoy AI health assistant (check it out by clicking on “Take Quiz”).

A.I. Health Assistant

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References

  1. Congestion, Stuffy Nose, & Nasal Obstruction. MUSC Health. MUSC Health Link.
  2. Naclerio RM, Bachert C, Baraniuk JN. Pathophysiology of Nasal Congestion. International Journal of General Medicine. 2010;3:47-57. NCBI Link.
  3. Relief for Nasal Congestion. Kaiser Permanente. Published October 10, 2011. Kaiser Permanente Link.
  4. Influenza (Flu). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated October 26, 2016. CDC Link.
  5. Bishop S. Pay Close Attention to Symptoms to Determine if Cause is Sinus Infection or Allergies. Mayo Clinic. Published April 12, 2013. Mayo Clinic Link.
  6. Haizul I, Umi Kalthum M. Dangerous Diplopia: A Case of Pansinusitis. Malaysian Family Physician. 2013;8(1):38-41. NCBI Link.
  7. Head and Neck Cancer. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. ASHA Link.
  8. Alkan G, Emiroğlu M, Kartal A. Two Different Life-Threatening Cases: Presenting with Torticollis. Case Reports in Pediatrics. 2016;2016:7808734. NCBI Link.
  9. Dextromethorphan, Guaifenesin, and Pseudoephedrine. University of Michigan: Michigan Medicine. Updated December 14, 2016. UofM Health Link.
  10. Antihistamine/Decongestant Combination (Oral Route). Mayo Clinic. Updated October 1, 2018. Mayo Clinic Link.
  11. Kingdom T. Sinusitis Medications. National Jewish Health. Published February 2013. National Jewish Health Link.
  12. Malaty J, Malaty IAC. Smell and Taste Disorders in Primary Care. American Family Physician. 2013;88(12):852-859. AAFP Link.