Doctors will prescribe medication for congestion according to who is using it, their age, general health, and other symptoms. Possible options include decongestants, antihistamines, and nasal sprays.

The technical term for a blocked or stuffy nose is nasal congestion. Viruses, such as the common cold, or allergies, cause nasal congestion.

This article explores the best types of medication for congestion, the recommended dosage, and any precautions or side effects. It also discusses possible alternatives and preventions.

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The basic medications for congestion are:

  • decongestants
  • antihistamines
  • steroid nasal spray
  • menthol
  • pain relievers

Some of these medications are available over the counter (OTC), and others require a prescription. A person can also combine medications, such as products containing decongestants, antihistamines, and pain relievers.

Learn about what causes nasal congestion here.

Decongestants can provide short-term relief for a blocked or stuffy nose.

Decongestants come in many forms, including:

  • nasal sprays
  • drops
  • tablets
  • capsules
  • liquids or syrups
  • flavored powders to dissolve in hot water

For most decongestants, people should not take more than four daily doses.

A person should pay particular attention to the ingredients in the decongestant, as some also contain pain relievers and antihistamines. These products can be helpful if the congestion is due to allergies or if people are experiencing aches and pains along with their stuffy noses.


A person should not take these medications at the same time as any other drugs. It may not be safe for people who are pregnant to take decongestants. People should not use decongestants without a doctor’s advice if they have:

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states that doctors should not treat children under 2 with decongestants. Additionally, people who are taking some antidepressants should not use decongestants.

Side effects

Decongestants do not usually cause serious side effects, particularly when sold OTC.

Possible side effects may include:

More serious but rare side effects include hallucinations and severe allergic reactions (anaphylaxis). A person should seek emergency medical attention if they are experiencing these symptoms.

Learn about other ways to clear sinus congestion here.

Antihistamines can effectively reduce congestion in people with allergies, such as hayfever.

They also come in several different forms, including:

  • tablets
  • capsules
  • liquids or syrups
  • creams or lotions
  • gels
  • eyedrops
  • nasal sprays

These medications may be less effective when used alone than decongestants, but when used in a medication formulated to contain both, they can help some people.

The right dosage of antihistamine will vary depending on a person’s weight, age, symptoms, and the type of antihistamine they are taking.

A person should follow a healthcare professional’s instructions or the information that comes with the product.


Pregnant people or those with other underlying health conditions should consult a medical professional before taking antihistamines.

Avoid using alcohol and other medications containing antihistamines when taking these drugs. A person taking antidepressants or medications for indigestion or stomach ulcers should also not take antihistamines.

The FDA states that children under 2 should not consume antihistamines.

Side effects

Some versions of antihistamines can make some people drowsy.

Other side effects of antihistamines may include

  • dry mouth
  • blurred vision
  • urination difficulty
  • headache
  • nausea

People should seek medical assistance if they experience any of these symptoms.

Learn about natural antihistamines for allergies here.

Steroid nasal sprays are available as OTC and prescription medications.

These medications can take a few days to take effect, so a person using the spray for allergies should start doing so before the season begins. A person should not use a steroid nasal spray for more than 1 month without consulting a doctor or healthcare professional.

People should avoid directing the spray at the bony area that separates the nostrils or septum.


Some nasal sprays are not suitable for children.

A person taking steroids or has had previous issues with steroids should not use these medications.

Side effects

Steroid nasal sprays do not usually cause significant side effects if a person uses the correct doses.

Using a steroid nasal spray can cause irritation, dryness in the nose and throat, crustiness, or itchiness, and may leave an unpleasant taste in the mouth.

Nose bleeds are a potential side effect of steroid nasal sprays.

A person should speak with a doctor if they experience any of the above side effects.

Learn about nasal spray addiction here.

Menthol as a treatment for congestion is available in many forms, including:

  • an ointment
  • aromatherapy
  • lozenges

One of the most popular ways to use menthol as a treatment for congestion is as a topical salve that a person rubs into their back, throat, and chest.

A person should speak with a healthcare professional about how often to apply it or follow the manufacturer’s instructions.


A menthol salve is for external use only. A person should not apply it under the nose or mouth or near the eyes. Use sparingly or according to the instructions, and breathe in deeply.

Additional recommendations include:

  • not putting the salve in a microwave
  • not adding to hot water
  • not applying it to broken skin
  • not using it on infants or children under 2

Side effects

Allergic reactions are possible but not common and could include:

People should speak with a doctor if they experience any of the above.

Learn more about using menthol salves on babies.

People can use nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and acetaminophen to alleviate the aches, pains, and headaches that may accompany congestion. However, they will not reduce congestion when used alone.

The proper dosage for pain relievers depends on:

  • other medication a person is taking
  • the strength of other medication
  • a person’s size and age
  • the doctor’s instructions


Children under age 16 should not take aspirin due to the risk of Reye’s syndrome. Reye’s syndrome, a potentially fatal condition, is a serious side effect of aspirin use among children.

Pregnant or breastfeeding people or have ulcers, asthma, or other underlying health conditions should consult a doctor before using OTC pain relievers.

Learn more about pain and how to treat it here.

Side effects

Anyone who takes NSAIDs may experience side effects. Usually, over-the-counter pain relievers cause less severe side effects than prescription versions.

Some possible side effects include:

Rare effects may include issues with:

NSAIDs may cause stomach ulcers if a person takes them long term.

People should consult a medical professional if they experience any side effects after taking NSAIDs.

Learn about alternatives to NSAIDs here.

Getting plenty of rest and staying well-hydrated are common home remedies for congestion.

Since adults need to be very cautious about giving any drugs to children, the best medication for congestion in young children may be a cool mist humidifier. This can help shrink nasal passages and make breathing easier for children.

Other options include:

  • regular use of a saline nasal rinse
  • applying a warm, moist cloth to the face, neck, and throat
  • exploring herbal remedies

Learn about some home remedies to help clear a stuffy nose.

Keeping congestion from developing in the first place is one of the best ways to treat it.

It is useful to identify and avoid triggers, such as:

A person can also keep a diary to track when symptoms occur.

Find out more about preventing allergies.

A stuffy nose is often due to the common cold or allergies, and a person does not need to see a doctor. Typically, rest and self-care can help a person recover.

However, the following symptoms could signify that it is time to see a doctor:

Congestion has many possible causes, including allergies, the common cold, and other viruses.

Many OTC and prescription products, such as decongestants, antihistamines, steroid nasal spray, menthol, pain relievers, and home remedies, can treat it.

A person should see a doctor if these products do not result in significant improvement or if additional symptoms develop.