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Decongestants: efficacy, usage, and precautions

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 2 minutes read

Discover the effectiveness and considerations surrounding decongestants, vital medications employed to alleviate temporary nasal congestion. This comprehensive article delves into the treatment, mechanisms of action, appropriate usage, contraindications, potential interactions, and side effects associated with decongestants.

Providing Relief from Nasal Congestion

Decongestants serve as a short-term solution for individuals experiencing nasal congestion caused by various factors such as colds, flu, sinusitis, and allergies like hay fever. Well-known examples of decongestants include phenylephrine, oxymetazoline, and xylometazoline. These medications are readily available over-the-counter at pharmacies. Different formulations, including tablets, capsules, oral liquids, nasal sprays, nasal drops, and powders, are accessible to meet individual needs. It is important to note that only one decongestant product should be used at a time.

Who can benefit from decongestants?

While decongestants are generally suitable for adults, children aged six and above may also use them. However, observing age restrictions specific to each decongestant product is crucial. Individuals with uncontrolled high blood pressure should avoid decongestants, as these medications can raise blood pressure levels.

Mechanism of action

Nasal congestion occurs when blood vessels in the nasal passages become inflamed, producing excessive mucus. Most decongestants act as vasoconstrictors, narrowing the blood vessels in the nose and reducing swelling. This leads to improved nasal airflow, relieving discomfort associated with congestion. Nasal sprays and drops provide faster relief compared to oral decongestants.

Precautions: who should avoid decongestants?

Individuals with allergies to any ingredients present in decongestant products should refrain from their use. Moreover, decongestants are not recommended for children under the age of six. Prior consultation with your doctor or pharmacist is essential for pregnant or breastfeeding individuals and those with medical conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, hyperthyroidism, enlarged prostate, glaucoma, or kidney, liver, heart, or circulatory disorders. Interactions with certain medications, including monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), necessitate professional advice to ensure safety.

Potential side effects

As with any medication, some individuals may experience side effects. If any adverse effects become bothersome, consulting your doctor is advised. Possible side effects associated with decongestants include nausea, vomiting, headache, dry mouth, restlessness, anxiety, and sleep difficulties. Infrequently, individuals may experience rapid or irregular heartbeats, necessitating immediate cessation of medication and medical consultation. Prolonged use of decongestants can lead to rebound congestion, wherein nasal congestion worsens. Adherence to recommended usage durations is crucial to avoid this rebound effect.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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