Condition: Nasal Congestion

Nasal congestion is term used to describe blockage of the nose, a feeling or pressure or difficulty breathing through the nose. It can be due to inflammation and mucus, commonly as a result of irritation caused by allergies or an infection, or caused by structural abnormalities in the nose.

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What is nasal congestion?

Nasal congestion is a common problem where inflammation in the lining of the nose, a build-up of mucus or structural abnormalities makes it difficult to breathe in and out through your nose.

Nasal congestion will usually rectify itself within a few days but can sometimes last for weeks, and may benefit from treatment. What are the symptoms of nasal congestion?

If you have nasal congestion, the main symptom you will experience is a blocked or stuffy nose.

This can make it difficult to breathe through your nose, causing you to start breathing through your mouth instead. It may cause difficulty sleeping or limit exercise. Although your nose will feel blocked you may also have a runny nose with mucus dripping from your nose or down the back of your throat.

In some cases, nasal congestion can be associated with sneezing, mucus discharge, coughing and a headache.

What causes nasal congestion?

A number of things can cause irritation in the nose that leads to nasal congestion. The most common causes are allergies (pollen, dust mites, mould, pet dander) and infections such as the common cold, flu and sinusitis.

Other, less common causes of nasal congestion include:

  • Environmental factors such as stress, smoke, paint fumes or spicy food
  • Certain medications such as high blood pressure or pain medications
  • Hormonal changes that occur during puberty, pregnancy or menopause
  • Overuse of decongestant sprays
  • A foreign object in the nose
  • Nasal polyps
  • Enlarged adenoids (glands situated just behind the nasal passage)
  • Enlarged turbinates
  • Deviated nasal septum
  • Injury to the nose
  • A tumour in the nose

In most cases, nasal congestion is diagnosed upon evaluation of your symptoms and a physical examination. If the cause of the problem is unclear, your consultant may need to perform some tests which may include skin prick allergy testing, a CT scan and/or a nasal endoscopy.

What are the treatment options for nasal congestion?

The treatment you’ll need depends on the severity of your symptoms and the root cause of your congestion.

Over-the-counter nasal decongestants are usually the first line of treatment for congestion related to a common cold.. These can be used for no more than 1 week to help reduce inflammation in your nose - longer term use can cause rebound congestion. If your congestion is caused by allergies it’s advised to avoid allergens as much as you can and use intranasal corticosteroid sprays or antihistamines regularly to help alleviate symptoms. Steam inhalation can also help to open up your nose, making it easier to breathe. Saline rinses can also be done at home to clear mucus from your nose.

If these self-care treatments are ineffective, you may need to be prescribed stronger medications by your consultant.

Surgery may be required if your congestion persists after taking medications, or if the blockage is caused by an obstruction due to injury or polyps. Your consultant will advise you as to which treatment is likely to be most effective for you and will talk you through all of your options.

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