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Nasal congestion occurs when the vessels in the nose swell causing expansion of the nasal tissue and the subsequent feeling of obstructed nasal breathing. Some feeling of resistance in the nose is actually normal and gives you the sensation that air is going through the nose. But, too much inflammation of the nasal tissues can lead to difficulty exercising, poor sleeping, chronic or acute sinusitis, and other health problems. The causes of congeston range from allergies to sinus infections.
The following is a list of 11 common causes of nasal congestion. It is important to be aware of the various health conditions and behaviors that can lead to nasal congestion in order to be able to manage them appropriately.
Many cases of acute sinus infection will start with a cold. A virus is introduced by touching the nose or eyes or by inhaling the virus which enters into your tissue. Your immune system will send white blood cells to fight the virus. The white blood cells release inflammatory factors which will cause the nose to run and become congested. Viruses like the rhinovirus and coronavirus are estimated to cause over one billion common colds in America each year. This swelling is what causes the “stuffy” feeling in your nose.
If your sinus infection is viral, then antibiotics are not helpful, since these drugs kill only bacteria. Most people with a ‘cold’ will usually feel better within a week or so as the virus is removed by the body defenses. Symptomatic treatment with rest and fluids can help the body recover more quickly. Medications that minimize symptoms like oral or topical decongestants may help you feel better if you have contracted a viral sinus infection. It is best to limit the use of topical decongestants to no more than three or four days to prevent “rebound congestion” from the medicine that can feel like a cold even after the virus is gone.
To avoid viral respiratory infections you should protect yourself by washing your hands frequently, not rubbing your nose or eyes, avoiding touching public doorknobs and handles, and trying not to spend time with others with ‘colds’, since the viral form is contagious.
Nasal congestion is also commonly caused by allergies. Your body will sometimes see common substances like dust, pets or trees as potential enemies that need to be controlled. Again, the white blood cells release inflammatory factors that cause congestion, a clear runny nose, and itching. The inflammation can block your nasal cavities and inhibit the ability of your sinuses to drain normally. Studies show that allergies are not only directly connected to acute sinus infections, but people who suffer from certain allergies are also at a higher risk of developing chronic sinusitis.
If you have been diagnosed with allergies, be sure to stay away from the things that cause reactions, whether dust mites, mold and mildew, cigarette smoke, cockroaches or pet dander. Keep your environment clear of allergens and read Dr. Bennett’s Spotlight Series articles for more extensive tips on fighting sinus infection-causing allergies.
Medications can help with decreasing allergy symptoms. Antihistamines like Claritin or Zyrtec can reduce the congestion and clear runny nose from allergies. Nasal steroid nasal sprays over time can ease the inflammation inside the nose. If all else fails, you can consider allergy shots to decrease your response to specific allergens.
Congestion that lasts over a week to ten days and has increasing facial pressure, thickened discolored nasal discharge, fatigue and headaches may be caused by bacteria. A viral infection or allergies can cause the right environment for bacteria to grow as well. The body mounts a defense to the bacteria with the white cells releasing inflammatory factors to attack the bacteria. The inflammation causes the nose to be severely congested.
The three most common forms of acute bacterial infections that cause nasal congestion are streptococcus pneumoniae, haemophilus influenza and moraxella catarrhalis.
Unfortunately, there is little to do to prevent bacteria from entering your body, as the “ingredients” for these infections exist in even the healthiest and most wellness-conscious people. The bacteria can multiply and cause nasal congestion at the very first moment your immune system lets its guard down. Bacterial sinus infections can resolve on their own and frequently symptomatic treatment is all that is needed but sometimes an antibiotic is necessary.
A nasal polyp is a grapelike growth of your own nasal mucosa that forms in your sinuses. While benign, they too can cause sinus blockages and feelings of congestion since your sinuses are unable to drain properly due to the interference that the polyp creates. Depending upon their location, polyps may also hamper your ability to breathe and your sense of smell. If you have chronic allergies or asthma, you may also be prone to nasal polyps.
The causes of nasal polyps are not precisely known although they are associated with allergies and smoking among other things. There are a variety of treatments for nasal polyps to alleviate congestion, ranging from steroid nasal sprays to surgery, depending upon the severity.
Inflammation of the nasal tissues that causes congestion is also linked to indoor and outdoor pollutants you unwittingly inhale every day, including dust, exhaust, and even perfume.
Avoidance is the best way to reduce your chance of developing a sinus infection. Environmental precautions and investing in a HEPA (High Efficiency Air Particulate) filter to clean the air inside your home can also help.
If you are pre-disposed to nasal congestion and sinus infections, it is important to make sure that you do not spend extended periods of time in chlorinated pools. Chlorine can act as a nasty irritant, disrupting the normal functioning of your nasal membrane lining and sinuses.
Diving into a swimming pool also carries its own separate risk. When you dive into water (despite whether the water is chlorinated), it can create pressure in your sinuses, since when your head impacts with the water, water can be pushed into the sinuses and subsequently irritate and inflame the tissue.
Those who spend lots of time traveling in the air often experience nasal congestion, due to the pressure that builds in your head during liftoff and landing. Air in a plane has a relative humidity similar to a desert that can dry your sinuses as well. If you suffer from nasal congestion from flying there are some simple preventative measures you can perform. Avoiding caffeine and alcohol on the flight, opting instead for water instead can keep you and your sinuses moist. You can also use a small bottle of saline or use a hot towel or the steam from herbal tea to keep your sinuses healthy. If you have sinus pressure you can use a decongestant spray or tablet to help open the sinuses although they can be drying for the nose. We have put together a list of Healthy Flying Tips to make your flying experience a healthier one.
Although it is a fact that a nasal decongestant spray can ease nasal congestion, overuse may cause an even more severe rebound congestion of the nasal tissue. Dr. Bennett reminds patients not to use decongestant nasal sprays, like oxymetazoline, for more than 3 consecutive days as prolonged or overuse can worsen your symptoms worse.
Another consequence of overuse of nasal sprays is a type of immunity to the product. In effect, the next time you attempt to decrease nasal congestion through the use of a nasal spray, it may not work as swiftly or as effectively if you had recently used the product to treat your symptoms.
How do you know if you are over-using your nasal spray? Dr. Bennett recommends that prescription and over-the-counter sprays should only be used as directed, and in most cases, for no longer than three to four days, to decrease the chances of dependency. An alternative is rinsing your nose with a Neti Pot and nasal saline. Click here to read more about Neti Pot and nasal congestion.
Nasal congestion can also be worsened in people who have an ostructive sinus and nasal structures. For example, slender or tight drainage passages, growths, and enlarged turbinates are all structural abnormalities that can contribute to blockages and increased likelihood of congestion.
Perhaps the most common type of nasal abnormality leading to increased congestion is a deviated septum. A deviated septum is when the bone and cartilage that divides the nasal passages is off to one or both sides enough to obstruct that side of the nose. In these cases, even a small amount of nasal congestion may be enough to cause symptoms or even sinusitis. Enlarged adenoids, lymphoid tissue in the path connecting the throat and nose that aid in the filtering out of harmful microorganisms and other impurities, can also contribute to nasal obstruction.
Alcohol is a vasodilator which will cause the vessels in your nose to expand. This brings more blood into the nose causing the nasal tissue to swell and giving you the sensation of congestion. Toxins present in alcohol can also contribute to the congestion you experience while drinking. Beer, red wine and aged alcohols are known to cause more nasal congestion than clear liquors. This is one of the reasons you should never drink alcohol for a few days before and a couple of weeks after nasal surgery so as not to inhibit the normal healing of the nose.
Certain types of chronic medical disorders, although rare, may also lead to nasal congestion. If you have been diagnosed with HIV, cystic fibrosis, diabetes, or any other disorder associated with problems in the way your immune system functions, it could cause your mucus to become denser than usual, restricting proper drainage and leading to increased congestion and sinus infections. Some medications can also cause congestion like medicine to treat prostate enlargement or beta-blockers for high blood pressure. Pregnancy and changes in female hormones have also been linked to nasal congestion. If you are pregnant, be sure to speak with your obstetrician before you take any medication.