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Blocked nose and nasal congestion

Dr Roger Henderson
Reviewed by Roger HendersonReviewed on 29.04.2024 | 4 minutes read

A blocked nose is the feeling that the nasal passages are congested or stuffy. Depending on the individual, a blocked nose can affect each person quite differently. A blocked nose can occur over a short period (acute) or a long period (chronic) of time, which is usually regarded as more than three months.

A blocked nose can occur with other symptoms which may give an indication of the cause. For example nasal discharge (rhinorrhoea), loss of sense of smell or taste (anosmia), sneezing and irritation, pain in the face or nasal bleeding. 

Doctor’s advice

What causes a blocked nose?

There are many causes of a blocked nose. They can be brought on by things like allergies, infections, injuries to the nose and your surroundings. Here are some of the main causes of a blocked nose:

  • Injury from outside the nose can affect the middle partition of the nose (septum) causing deviation or lead to inflammation around the nose, which can affect breathing. This will be long term, and often will not get better over time.
  • Short or long-term infections can inflame and swell the inner layer of the nose. Infections such as the common cold, flu and chronic sinusitis
  • Asthma is a long-term condition that causes inflammation in the airways and nasal passages.
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a lifelong condition that causes the airways and nasal passages to be inflamed and can cause blocked airways.
  • Cold or dry air can irritate the lining of the nose making it inflamed. More mucus is produced leading to nasal congestion.
  • Rhinitis is the inflammation of the nose and symptoms can include a blocked nose.
  • Allergies such as hay fever are a type of allergic rhinitis that can result in a blocked nose and are typically caused by grass or tree pollen.
  • Smoke from cigarettes (and car exhausts) can cause irritation.
  • Medications such as decongestants can cause nasal congestion if overused due a rebound effect.
  • Growths like benign polyps and less commonly cancerous tumours can also be causes. Nasal and sinus cancer can result in a long-term blockage which usually only affects one side.
  • Pregnancy rhinitis is an inflammation of the mucous membranes lining the nose.
  • Swimming pools with chlorine can cause a blocked nose.
  • Emotional and physical stress can also cause nasal congestion.

Nasal congestion symptoms

When your nose is blocked, you may find it difficult to breathe. If inflamed the swollen nasal passages make it hard for air to flow when you breathe in through your nose. This often makes it hard to get rid of mucus, which can lead to a build-up of excess mucus and result in a stuffy nose.

This can lead to related cold symptoms such as a runny nose and headaches, and can be referred to as a head cold or sinus headache. Collectively, this can make someone feel tired and run-down and can impact their ability to perform day-to-day activities.

How to clear a blocked nose at home

Treatment and management depend on how much the symptoms affect your ability to carry out daily activities. If your symptoms are mild or short-lived, it may be worthwhile trying some home treatment remedies to relieve the blockage. You can try to unblock your nose by:

  • Steam inhalation with menthol or eucalyptus vapours.
  • Nasal washouts with saline water.
  • Drinking lots of water can help to thin out mucus and ease congestion.
  • Sleeping in a humidified room may be helpful.
  • Propping up your pillow at night when you sleep can also help open up the airways.
  • Steam can help to unblock your nose. Try taking a hot shower or breathing in steam from a pot of warm water.
  • A warm, wet towel held against your face can help relieve swelling and inflammation in your nasal passages.

Healthwords pharmacists' top tips

Your local pharmacist can advise on over-the-counter treatment options to help clear your blocked nose such as decongestant nasal sprays, saline nasal drops or antihistamine tablets if you suspect an allergy is the cause of your symptoms.

When should I see my doctor about a blocked nose?

If your symptoms are persisting despite treatment, or they are accompanied by symptoms such as high fever, green or red nasal discharge or you have lung problems, you should speak to your doctor. If you have had any head injury you should seek urgent advice.

Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and their duration and your medical history and they will examine your ear, nose and throat.

Depending on the findings they may prescribe you a course of steroid nasal sprays, antibiotics, stronger antihistamines or refer you for specialist input with an ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor.

An ENT doctor will do a thorough examination of your nasal passages and may arrange for blood tests, allergy tests, a camera probe or scans of your head for further assessment. They may also recommend further medication for you to try or surgery if necessary.

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Dr Roger Henderson
Reviewed by Roger Henderson
Reviewed on 29.04.2024
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