Eye/Ear/Nose/Throat: Nasal Congestion


Nasal congestion, otherwise known as “stuffy nose,” occurs when nasal tissue and blood vessels in the nose swell up with excess fluid and material, causing a feeling of stuffiness. Although it is usually just an annoyance for older children and adults, the condition can be serious in infants, who might have a hard time nursing or breathing as a result.

Signs and Symptoms

Some of the most common indications of nasal congestion are:

  • Feeling of obstructed breathing
  • Pressure in nose or sinuses
  • Yellow or green nasal discharge
  • Postnasal drip
  • Headache

Causes/Common Triggers

Congestion can be caused by an infection, allergies, or can result from exposure to irritants such as tobacco smoke. Common triggers include:

  • Environmental conditions
  • Changes in weather
  • Presence of allergens (eg, dust, pollen, pet dander)
  • Infection
  • Common cold
  • Flu

Tests and Diagnosis

Most of the time, nasal congestion is a symptom associated with the common cold or flu. It usually presents with other symptoms, such as sore throat, coughing, sneezing, or fever. Physicians can diagnose nasal congestion based on symptoms or by obtaining sputum cultures.


Both the cold and flu can be transmitted easily through droplets released by coughing, sneezing, or talking. To help prevent nasal congestion, patients should always try to avoid allergens and practice proper hygiene by:

  • Covering the mouth while sneezing or coughing
  • Keeping distance from those who are sick
  • Using proper hand-washing techniques

Individuals should always wash their hands with soap and warm water, or if none is available, use a hand sanitizer.


In addition to maintaining proper hygiene, patients should drink plenty of fluid, especially water, and avoid known triggers.

Treatment and Care

If an infection is suspected, a physician may prescribe antibiotics. If the congestion is due to a cold, patients should increase fluid intake and get an adequate amount of rest. Patients who develop a fever can take OTC fever reducers such as ibuprofen, naproxen sodium, and aspirin. It is important to first consult with a pharmacist about which treatment is best and how long it should be taken. If symptoms persist after treating the congestion for more than 1 or 2 weeks, patients should speak with a physician.

Homeopathic and Alternative Remedies

A variety of alternative remedies and treatments can be used to treat nasal congestion, including:

  • A humidifier
  • Nasal irrigation with saline
  • Taking a hot, steamy shower
  • Using a warm compress on the face
  • Taking vitamin supplements

Patients should always check with a pharmacist or physician before taking any supplements, to prevent potentially harmful interactions.


Several OTC products can be used to treat nasal congestion, including decongestants that are available as nasal sprays and decongestants that can be taken orally. Both can be taken to retaken orally. Both can be taken to relieve symptoms; however, there may be restrictions on how often or how long they can be used. A pharmacist can provide advice or recommendations based on a patient’s preference and individual symptoms.

Resources for Patients

The following resources will provide patients with more information on preventing and managing nasal congestion:

  • American Rhinologic Society
  • National Institutes of Health
  • Mayo Clinic: Nasal Congestion

Resources for Pharmacists

  • American Academy of Otolaryngology
  • National Eye Institute
  • National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders

Related Content