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Your Congestion May Also be Known as:
Breathing through my mouth only
Can't breathe through nose
Cold symptoms
Congested
Difficulty breathing
Head cold

Congestion Symptoms

Spring has sprung. The leaves and flowers are in bloom and now you can't 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 with. 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.

Common symptoms of nasal congestion are:

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

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.

Infectious nasal congestion causes:

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

Inflammatory and allergic nasal congestion causes:

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

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 typically from one nostril.
  • Deviated septum: The bone that separates the inside of the nose into right and left nostrils can bend towards one side or the other and lead to chronic stuffiness and even polyps in the nose.
  • Irritation: Dry air, smoke, and chemicals can all lead to congestion.
  • 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 as directed.

Top 10 Congestion Causes

  1. 1.Common Cold

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

    The common cold is treated symptomatically. Since this is a viral infection, antibiotics are not effective. You can safely treat the symptoms of this condition with over-the-counter pain relievers, decongestants, antihistamines & cough medicines.

    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
    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.

    Despite being quite bothersome, allergies are a benign condition that can be treated at home. Symptoms include runny nose, sneezing, and itchy eyes. If possible, avoid the triggering allergen. Over-the-counter antihistamines like loratidine (Claritin), or diphenhydramine (Benadryl) may be helpful.

    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, chills, muscle aches
    Urgency:
    Self-treatment
  3. 3.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.

    Antibiotics are not useful for viral infections. You can gargle with salt water and use over the counter pain medication like Tylenol to treat your painful or sore throat.

    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
  4. 4.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.

    You should visit your primary care physician, who may send you to a specialist to examine your nasal passages. A doctor may prescribe a topical or oral corticosteroid.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, trouble sleeping, headache, congestion, runny nose
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  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 sick collect excess mucus and can become infected.

    You should visit a physician or urgent care facility in the next day or two. It’s likely your sinus infection is caused by a bacterial infection, which requires treatment with antibiotics. In the mean time, ibuprofen or acetaminophen can be taken to help with pain & fever.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, headache, cough, muscle aches, sore throat
    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

    Take a quiz to find out why you’re having congestion.

    Take a quiz
  6. 6.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.

    You can safely treat this condition on your own by avoiding triggers of the symptoms, and also taking steps to relieve the symptoms once they appear. Symptom relief can be helped by rinsing nasal passages using a squeeze bottle (included in saline kits), blowing the nose regularly, getting an air humidifier for home use, and staying hydrated. You should not overuse nasal decongestants, as this may actually worsen your symptoms.

    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
    Urgency:
    Self-treatment
  7. 7.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.

    You can treat your symptoms at home using ibuprofen (for pain) and Tylenol (for a fever). Antibiotics for this diagnosis are not helpful because this is likely a viral infection.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    headache, cough, sore throat, sinusitis symptoms, muscle aches
    Symptoms that always occur with acute viral sinusitis:
    sinusitis symptoms
    Symptoms that never occur with acute viral sinusitis:
    being severely ill
    Urgency:
    Self-treatment
  8. 8.Normal Congestion and Runny Nose

    A stuffy or congested nose occurs when the tissues lining it become swollen. The swelling is due to inflamed blood vessels.The problem may also include nasal discharge or "runny nose." If excess mucus runs down the back of your throat (postnasal drip), it may cause a cough or sore throat.

    Your runny nose and congestion looks like a variation of normal, which doesn't require any treatment, for now.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    congestion, runny nose, clear runny nose
    Symptoms that never occur with normal congestion and runny nose:
    fever, new headache, severe congestion
    Urgency:
    Wait and watch
  9. 9.Chronic Allergies

    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.

    Allergies are a benign (but annoying!) condition, that can cause symptoms like a runny nose, sneezing, and itchy eyes. Treat by avoiding what you're allergic to, or with an over-the-counter medication such as loratidine (Claritin), or diphenhydramine (Benadryl).

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, irritability, trouble sleeping, runny nose, cough with dry or watery sputum
    Symptoms that never occur with chronic allergies:
    fever, chills, muscle aches
    Urgency:
    Self-treatment
  10. 10.Cluster Headache (New Onset)

    A cluster headache is a type of 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 occur regularly for 1 week to 1 year. The attacks are separated by pain-free periods that last at least 1 month or longer. Cluster headaches may be confused with other common types of headaches such as migraines, sinus headache, and tension headache.

    You should visit your primary care physician to discuss symptoms, especially if the headaches are worsening or happening more frequently. Cluster headaches are diagnosed purely by history. Treatment options include extra oxygen and prescription medications.

    Rarity:
    Uncommon
    Top Symptoms:
    nausea, new headache, severe headache, throbbing headache, sensitivity to light
    Symptoms that always occur with cluster headache (new onset):
    severe headache, new headache
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor

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.

Good remedies for nasal congestion symptoms include:

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

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

  • Decongestants

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

  • Antihistamines such as Benadryl or loratidine

  • Nasal steroid sprays, helpful for chronic sinusitis and congestion from allergies

  • Minimize exposure to smoke and allergens

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

If you have a foreign body in your nose, obviously you need to seek medical care to have that removed. 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.

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. Inflammation of or around the nerves of the face can also lead to changes in sensation and altered perception of both taste and smell. Reduced airflow can occur when inflamed and swollen mucosa (lining of the inner nose) block adequate drainage of the nose.

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.

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.

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.

How to relieve severe nasal congestion?

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

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Congestion

  • Q.How has the intensity of your congestion changed over time?
  • Q.Is your congestion or stuffy nose constant or come-and-go?
  • Q.How long has your congestion been going on?
  • Q.How severe is your congestion?

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

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Congestion Symptom Checker Statistics

  • People who have experienced congestion have also experienced:

    • 15% Cough
    • 8% Sore Throat
    • 5% Headache
  • People who have experienced congestion had symptoms persist for:

    • 46% Less Than a Week
    • 17% Less Than a Day
    • 13% One to Two Weeks
  • People who have experienced congestion were most often matched with:

    • 40% Common Cold
    • 11% Viral Throat Infection
    • 4% New - Onset Seasonal Allergies

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Congestion Checker

Take a quiz to find out why you’re having congestion.

Take a quiz