Nasal congestion occurs when blood vessels and mucous membranes in the sinuses and nasal passageways swell. While mild congestion often clears on its own, a range of treatments and home remedies can help.

Anyone of any age can develop nasal congestion, or a stuffy nose, but it may occur more frequently in some people.

For example, sinusitis, a condition that frequently causes it, tends to occur in children under 15 years of age and adults aged 25–64, particularly adult females.

Below, learn more about the issues that cause congestion and how to find relief.

a woman holding a tissue to her nose because she has nasal congestionShare on Pinterest
From infections to environmental factors, many issues cause nasal congestion.

A medical term for inflammation of the sinuses and nasal cavities is “rhinosinusitis,” and many issues that cause congestion bear this name. They include:

  • Infectious rhinosinusitis: Common cold viruses or upper respiratory infections cause infectious rhinosinusitis.
  • Allergic rhinosinusitis: This inflammation is triggered by an allergen or environmental irritant.
  • Seasonal allergic rhinosinusitis: A doctor diagnoses this, also called a seasonal allergy, when the inflammation is a response to pollen from trees, grasses, and weeds that are most abundant in the spring and fall.
  • Perennial allergic rhinosinusitis: This involves allergens present all year, such as mold, animal dander, dust mites, and cockroach debris.
  • Nonallergic rhinosinusitis: This inflammation stems from airborne irritants, such as smoke, chemicals, and pollution.

People with reduced immune function, possibly from HIV, diabetes, or receiving chemotherapy, may be especially susceptible to congestion that results from infection.

In other cases, nasal congestion is not a response to a pathogen, irritant, or allergen. The cause may instead involve:

  • Body positioning: Lying down makes it harder for the body to clear mucus, so people with reduced mobility may be more prone to congestion.
  • Structural issues within the sinuses: These might include polyps, septal deviation, narrowing of the passageways, tumors, or an extra pocket.
  • Health conditions that reduce mucous transport: Some examples include cystic fibrosis and a gallbladder disorder called biliary dyskinesia.

People with septal deviation may experience especially bad congestion. The septum is the thin wall separating the left and right nasal airways. A deviation means that the wall is slanted to one side, which can make breathing through one nostril difficult, even without an allergy or a cold to cause congestion.

When a parent or caregiver suspects that a child, and particularly a baby, has a stuffy nose, it may help to look out for the following signs:

  • trouble feeding or reduced appetite
  • increased fussiness or agitation
  • trouble breathing or choking on mucus
  • interrupted sleep or trouble falling asleep

Pregnancy-related nasal inflammation is fairly common, and the medical name for it is pregnancy rhinitis. It may stem from obesity, excessive weight gain during pregnancy, rising hormone levels, or a combination.

One 2016 study monitored 100 pregnant women and found that 39% of them experienced this rhinitis at some point. The issue tends to resolve within 3 weeks of delivery.

Nasal congestion can exacerbate symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea during pregnancy. A different 2016 study found that obstructive sleep apnea is associated with hypertension, the potentially serious complication preeclampsia, and fetal growth complications.

Overall, it is a good idea for anyone with persistent nasal congestion during pregnancy to raise the issue with a doctor.

Does frequent sneezing indicate a problem during pregnancy? Find out here.

According to a recent World Health Organization (WHO) analysis, only 5% of people with novel coronavirus infections experience a stuffy nose as a result. More commonly reported symptoms include:

  • a fever
  • a dry cough
  • unexplained exhaustion
  • coughing up thick mucus from the lungs

The best way to clear congestion depends largely on its cause. Some options include:

  • oral or topical antibiotics, if the cause is a bacterial infection
  • corticosteroid nasal sprays
  • mucus-thinning medications
  • immunotherapy
  • corrective surgery

To clear congestion at home, a person might try:

  • staying hydrated
  • taking a warm shower
  • inhaling steam from a bowl of hot water, with a towel over the head to trap in the steam
  • keeping the head elevated while sleeping
  • taking over-the-counter (OTC) antihistamines or decongestants
  • trying nasal rinses
  • taking OTC pain relief medications, if there is sinus pressure or pain
  • applying a cold compress to painful areas of the face
  • taking prophylactic probiotics or consuming probiotic-rich foods, such as yogurt or kimchi
  • taking supplements that boost immunity, such as zinc sulfate, echinacea, vitamin C, or geranium extract

It is important to note that experts warn against overusing nasal sprays and decongestants, as doing so can cause congestion.

Most people with a common cold or the flu feel better after a week or two.

If nasal congestion results from a bacterial infection, the doctor may prescribe antibiotics for 10–14 days, but the congestion may clear within 7 days. Still, it is important to take the full course of antibiotics.

If an allergy is the culprit, the congestion may last as long as the person is exposed to the allergen.

If a deviated septum regularly exacerbates or causes congestion, the doctor may recommend corrective surgery.

If nasal congestion lasts longer than 10–14 days or gets worse after 7–10 days, it may stem from a sinus infection. In this case, consult a doctor.

It is also a good idea to receive professional care if congestion does not ease with home remedies or is accompanied by:

  • a high fever
  • thick, discolored mucus or discharge
  • trouble breathing

The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America note that doing the following can reduce a person’s reaction to allergens and risk of infection:

  • washing the hands frequently with soap and water
  • washing bed linens regularly in hot water and detergent
  • keeping the windows and doors closed during high pollen and mold seasons, including the spring and fall
  • using dust mite covers for pillows, comforters, mattresses, and box springs
  • vacuuming frequently
  • avoiding close contact with people who are ill

To reduce the risk of rhinitis during pregnancy, it can help to maintain a healthy weight.

Nasal congestion might stem from an allergy, an infection, a malformation of the sinuses, or a health issue in another part of the body.

In most cases, congestion clears with home remedies and OTC medications. However, a person might need antibiotics for a bacterial infection or surgery to correct a deviated septum.

If congestion is severe or persistent, contact a doctor, especially during pregnancy.