What Is Nasal Congestion?

Nasal congestion is a common condition in which the nasal passages and nearby tissues have restricted airflow through them from structural narrowing, swelling of the tissues and blood vessels, or both.  This causes a  “stuffy nose.” People with nasal congestion also may have nasal discharge (a “runny nose”) or sinus congestion. Sinuses are the hollow cavities in your skull that are connected to your nasal passages.

Nasal congestion can be annoying, but it also can cause other health problems, such as difficulty sleeping. It can be a sign of an underlying condition, such as nasal polyps, allergy, or a deviated septum (when the wall that separates your nasal passages is off-center).

At University of Utah Health, our fellowship-trained rhinologists are ear, nose, and throat specialists who have advanced training in nasal and sinus conditions. They provide expert care, including extensive evaluations and personalized treatment plans.

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Nasal Congestion Causes

People develop nasal congestion for many reasons. These reasons can fall under two main categories:

  • structural problems that may cause a blockage in the nasal passages and
  • inflammatory conditions within the nasal passages or sinuses that are not caused by a structural problem.

Structural and inflammatory problems can occur separately or at the same time.

Nasal tumors also can cause congestion. These tumors are usually not cancerous.

Structural Problems

Problems with the structures in and around your nose can cause nasal congestion. These problems can include:

  • a deviated septum (the wall that separates your nasal passages)
  • a hole in the septum
  • enlarged turbinates (turbinates are structures inside the nose that help to warm and humidify the air that flows through the nostrils), and narrowing or collapse of the external cartilages of your nose.

Inflammatory Conditions

Inflammation in your nasal passages can occur because of:

  • allergies;
  • acute sinusitis (sinus infection);
  • chronic sinusitis (ongoing sinus inflammation);
  • exposure to irritants, such as tobacco smoke, wood dust, or chemicals;
  • nasal polyps, which are soft, painless, noncancerous growths on the lining of the nose or sinuses from ongoing inflammation;
  • swelling or irritation of tissues in the nose not related to allergies; and
  • a viral infection caused by a cold or the flu, for example.

Taking or overusing some medications can cause nasal congestion, too. This may happen when using decongestant sprays, blood pressure medications, or erectile dysfunction medications.

doctor with patient

When to See A Doctor for This Condition

If you experience nasal congestion for more than 10 days, consider making an appointment with your primary care provider—especially if you are having other symptoms such as:

  • thick, discolored mucus;
  • fever; or
  • facial pain or pressure.

Your provider may recommend treatments such as:

  • using a steroid nasal spray
  • taking allergy medication
  • taking an antibiotic,
  • getting more rest, and
  • rinsing your sinuses with a saline solution.

If your symptoms persist, you may need to make an appointment with a specialist, such as a rhinologist. Rhinologists at U of U Health are experts in diagnosing and treating nasal congestion.

What to Expect at Your First Appointment

During your first appointment, the rhinologist will talk with you about:

  • your symptoms and how long you have been experiencing them,
  • what makes your nasal congestion better or worse,
  • what treatments you have already tried, and
  • any underlying conditions that may be making your symptoms worse, such as allergies.

The doctor will do a nasal endoscopy, which involves using a thin tube with a small camera and light to view inside your nose and sinus passages.

The doctor may order tests, which may happen at a later time. These may include:

The rhinologist will provide a detailed diagnosis and talk to you about the next steps. This may happen during your first appointment or at a follow-up appointment, depending on the timing of your tests.

Your treatment plan may include medicine, at-home therapies, surgery, or a combination of these therapies.

Non-Surgical Treatments

Many people with nasal congestion can find relief through non-surgical therapies that reduce congestion and improve their quality of life. This may include the following:

  • flushing your sinuses with a saline solution,
  • using a nasal spray that contains a corticosteroid (anti-inflammatory) medication,
  • using an antihistamine medication (oral or spray),
  • using oral antibiotic medicines (if you have an infection),
  • making lifestyle changes, such as avoiding irritants,
  • treating any allergies, and
  • weaning off decongestant medication, if overuse is causing the congestion.

These therapies often are helpful, regardless of the cause of the nasal congestion.

Using Saline Irrigation to Relieve Nasal Congestion

Flushing your sinuses with a saline solution is a common treatment for nasal congestion that you can do at home. It can benefit you in many ways, including by:

  • removing excess mucus from your nasal passages,
  • removing allergens and irritants from your nasal passages,
  • humidifying your nasal passages, and
  • creating space inside your nasal passages so that nasal spray medication can reach affected areas.

The rhinologist will provide you with detailed instructions about how to do saline irrigations. With a little practice, you may find that this at-home therapy helps relieve your nasal congestion.

Surgical Treatments

The rhinologist may recommend surgery if non-surgical therapies don’t work or are unlikely to work in your case. Most surgeries for nasal congestion correct a structural problem, such as a deviated septum or enlarged turbinates.

If chronic sinusitis is causing your nasal congestion, the rhinologist may recommend endoscopic sinus surgery. This surgery opens up blocked sinuses so that they can drain better and anti-inflammatory medicine can reach your sinuses more easily.

Surgery for nasal congestion is done on an outpatient basis. Surgery alone is not necessarily a cure. You may need to use nasal sprays or irrigations that contain anti-inflammatory medication as directed by your doctor, depending on the cause of your congestion.

Making An Appointment with A Rhinologist

Referrals are welcome but not necessary when making an appointment with a rhinologist at U of U Health. To make an appointment, call 801-587-8368 or use our online form. Our team will verify your insurance coverage before your visit. If you have had medical tests related to your condition, we will request the results from your provider. Our goal is to make your visit as efficient and helpful as possible.