You know when you blow your nose and nothing comes out? Or when you try to inhale and it feels like a dead end? You’re likely stuck with a stuffy nose, and there are few things more annoying. It’s understandable you’d rush to search for how to get rid of a stuffy nose as soon as it crops up.
First, you should know the medical term for a stuffy nose is “rhinitis,” which means inflammation of the mucus membranes (a.k.a. mucosa) inside the nose, says Craig Polinsky, MD, an internal medicine specialist at Amicus Medical Centers. “When a person inhales an allergen into their nasal passage, either from a virus, bacteria, or any allergen, cells known as mast cells release a chemical called histamine, which starts the inflammatory process,” he explains. This is what causes mucus to build up, leading to a stuffy nose, along with other symptoms like sneezing, nasal itching, coughing, sinus pressure, and itchy eyes.
You may think the mucus is to blame, but the stuffiness is mainly due to vein swelling in your nose, says Steven Alexander, MD, an otolaryngologist at ENT and Allergy Associates. “A lot of people will blow their nose repeatedly trying to get the mucus out, when the real issue is the swelling,” he notes. “Blowing your nose is useful, but if nothing is coming out, it generally means there’s not a lot of mucus.”
The three common culprits behind inflammation in your nose are infections, allergies, and nonallergic rhinitis, says Dr. Alexander. Infections like COVID-19 and the common cold are caused by viruses or bacteria, while allergies are often seasonal and related to triggers in the environment such as pollen, dust, and animal dander. And nonallergic rhinitis is set off by pollution and temperature changes.
To find the appropriate remedy, you’ll first need to find out what’s causing your stuffy nose. If you are experiencing itchy or watery eyes along with sneezing and runny nose, it’s likely allergies or nonallergic rhinitis. But if you have discharge from your nose that is thick, yellow, or green, then it’s more likely to be infectious.
Ready for some much-needed relief and to breathe again? Try one of these following treatments recommended by experts.
Meet the experts: Craig Polinsky, MD, is an internal medicine physician with 23 years of experience. He practices at Amicus Medical Centers in Palm Beach, Florida.
Steven Alexander, MD, is an otolaryngologist and a member of the American Academy of Otolaryngology – Head & Neck Surgery and the American Medical Association. He treats all ear, nose, and throat disorders in adults and children.
1. Use a saline nasal spray.
A saline nasal spray is a simple, sterile, saltwater solution that is good for congested nasal cavities, says Dr. Alexander. This over-the-counter treatment works by drawing water out of the congested mucosa in your nose, ultimately shrinking the swollen nasal tissue and clearing up the stuffiness, he explains.
Saline spray is a safe option for all adults and can be used as often as needed to relieve symptoms, but overuse may cause some of the fluid to drip from your nose.
2. Try nasal saline irrigation.
Nasal irrigation (also known as sinus irrigation) is a variation of a saline nasal spray. It still uses a saline solution, but is applied with a larger sinus irrigation squeeze bottle, such as a neti pot. The saline gets deeper into the nasal cavity and goes around the back of the nose to come out the other side, says Dr. Alexander. This OTC method may be more effective than a saline spray because the larger volume of solution covers a larger area in the nose, rinsing it clean.
Nasal irrigation is safe for all ages, but if you are immunocompromised, check in with your doctor before attempting this, as nasal problems could indicate something more serious.
For a homemade solution, Dr. Alexander recommends adding ¼ teaspoon of kosher salt (so that it does not include iodine) and ¼ teaspoon of baking soda into eight ounces of sterile water (either distilled water or water you boil for 10 minutes and cool.) “Never use tap or bottled water without sterilizing it,” he notes.
3. Take an antihistamine.
Antihistamines such as Claritin, Allegra, and Zyrtec can also help wipe out any congestion. “These medicines block the production of histamine, which is the primary driver of inflammation and mucus production,” says Dr. Polinsky. And if you also have sneezing and sinus pressure, he recommends using antihistamines along with a nasal spray. While safe for most people, talk to your doctor before taking antihistamines if you are pregnant, planning to become pregnant, or breastfeeding.
4. Reach for a medicated nasal spray.
If you’re looking for congestion relief stat, the fastest OCT remedy is Afrin (also known as oxymetazoline), says Dr. Alexander. “It works within minutes by constricting the blood vessels in your nasal mucosa, decreasing swelling and opening your nasal airways.”
While effective, it is extremely important to use it only occasionally and for short periods of time. “When it constricts the blood vessels in your nose, the tissue gets less oxygen, and with prolonged use, it can cause damage to the tissue,” explains Dr. Alexander. The mucosa then responds to the damage by swelling up even more, making you feel worse. “It’s best used no more than twice a day for no more than three days in a row,” he says. “After that, stay away for at least a month.”
Corticosteroid nasal sprays such as Flonase or Nasacort also work by constricting the mucus membranes in the nose and decreasing inflammation, says Dr. Polinsky. “One of the benefits of corticosteroid nasal sprays is that they are readily available, and the medicine works just in the nasal passage.” In other words, it won’t make you drowsy.
Dr. Polinsky recommends one or two sprays per day, and while you might have a little blood in the mucus if you blow your nose afterwards, it’s nothing to worry about. If the bleeding becomes severe, stop use and check in with your doctor.
5. Get some eucalyptus oil.
If you’re looking for a natural home remedy, Dr. Polinsky suggests eucalyptus oil. Studies showed it can work as a pain reliever and has anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties to decrease mucus production and nasal inflammation. “Eucalyptus oil can be inhaled in a steam through a diffuser to reduce nasal symptoms or by adding a few drops of oil into a bowl of hot water,” says Dr. Polinsky. There are also eucalyptus lozenges and vapor rubs, which can also help to clear the nose.
While eucalyptus oil is safe to smell and inhale, avoid ingesting or putting it directly on your face. Also, make sure to store it in a cool, dry place, as heat and direct sunlight can change the composition of this essential oil.
6. Turn on your humidifier.
Humidifiers can reduce nasal congestion and sinus pain by releasing water vapor into the air and loosening the mucus in your nose, says Dr. Polinsky. Sleeping with a humidifier on also increases moisture and humidity, eliminating dry air that can irritate and inflame the nasal passageways.
Humidifiers can help ease symptoms, but always use a cool-mist model to avoid burns and keep it several feet away from the bed, according to the National Library of Medicine. Use distilled water in the unit and remember to frequently drain and clean since bacteria can grow in stagnant water.
Andi Breitowich is a Chicago-based writer and graduate student at Northwestern Medill. She’s a mass consumer of social media and cares about women’s rights, holistic wellness, and non-stigmatizing reproductive care. As a former collegiate pole vaulter, she has a love for all things fitness and is currently obsessed with Peloton Tread workouts and hot yoga.