Having a blocked nose can make you miserable. It feels hard to breathe, gives you a dry mouth at night, and can be accompanied by a pressure headache that rages on both sides of your head.
Thankfully, a congested nose is usually caused by something minor such as a cold or allergies, and there’s plenty of ways to unblock it. In this article, we’ll explore the common symptoms of a blocked nose, the various causes, and how to get relief.
What are the symptoms of a blocked nose?
Most people are familiar with the feeling of a stuffy nose. You’ll find it hard or impossible to breathe through it, and may also experience the following symptoms:
- Ear ache
- Dry mouth caused by mouth breathing
- Sore throat
- Bad breath
- Reduced sense of smell
- Upper jaw or tooth pain
- Watery eyes
Blocked nose causes and fixes
These are the most common reasons for nasal congestion, and some ways to fix them.
This is the number one culprit for blocked noses. The common cold virus (typically rhinovirus) inflames the lining of your nasal passages, which blocks them. The inflammation eases as your immune system fights the virus, and you can also find some relief from over-the-counter decongestant medicine.
Allergies (allergic rhinitis)
Pollen, dust, or animal dander can cause a reaction called allergic rhinitis, more commonly known as hay fever. This reaction causes your nasal passages to become inflamed, blocking them and preventing air from passing through.
Allergies can be relieved with antihistamines. There’s a lot of options to choose from (cetirizine, loratadine, and fexofenadine to name a few), so it’s best to speak to a doctor or pharmacist to get a recommendation.
Nasal polyps are soft growths on the lining of your nasal passages or sinuses. They are non-cancerous, but they can also cause inflammation in surrounding tissues, which causes a blocked nose.
They can be treated with corticosteroids or another type of medication, and surgically removed if unsuccessful.
Certain chemicals can also cause nasal inflammation, including cigarette smoke, which wafts directly into your nasal passages. Try to notice any patterns that emerge when you get a blocked nose—e.g. does it happen after you use a certain cleaning product, or have a cigarette? Once identified, you can avoid exposure to the chemical.
Sinus infection (rhinosinusitis)
Sinus infections are usually caused by a virus that infects and swells your nasal cavities. This usually causes discharge, a blocked nose, and headaches, and can be treated with nasal decongestant spray, antihistamines, prescribed antibiotics, and nasal irrigation.
Alcohol has a vasodilatory effect which can widen the blood vessels in your nose, causing it to become blocked1. If this is severe and happens regularly, and is accompanied by feelings of nausea, a rapid heart rate, or a throbbing headache, you may have an alcohol intolerance. This can be diagnosed by your doctor.
Low humidity air can cause your nasal lining to become dry, which causes it to become inflamed and potentially blocked. This can be treated with petroleum jelly, a humidifier, a saline nasal spray, or a steam bath or sauna.
A deviated septum is when your nasal septum veers off to one side, which makes your nasal passage smaller and can cause the affected nostril to become blocked. It’s caused by an injury to the nose, or a result of how your nose formed during fetal development2.
Blocked nose symptoms can be managed with decongestants, antihistamines, and nasal steroid sprays. If these don’t provide relief, your septum can be repaired surgically—a procedure known as septoplasty.
As with allergic rhinitis, nonallergic rhinitis can cause sneezing, a runny nose, and a blocked nose, but its cause is unclear. Triggers could be irritants in the air, weather chances, medications, certain foods, and more.
Non allergic rhinitis can be relieved with antihistamines, nasal sprays, and decongestants.
Your adenoids are glands located above the roof of your mouth, behind the nose. They produce antibodies to fight off infection, but can become enlarged by allergies or infection. When this happens, the nose can easily become blocked and cause congestion.
Enlarged adenoids can be treated with a nasal spray, or if symptoms are serious enough, they can be surgically removed.
Certain medications can cause inflammation in the nose, and lead to congestion. This includes medications for:
- High blood pressure
- Erectile dysfunction
- Pain relief, such as aspirin or ibuprofen3
Pregnancy (pregnancy rhinitis)
While it isn’t entirely clear what causes it, pregnant women may experience hay fever-like symptoms (including a blocked nose) due to something called pregnancy rhinitis. It can be treated with nasal irrigation by your doctor, or a neti pot with a saline solution.
Respiratory syncytial virus
Respiratory syncytial virus is a virus that causes respiratory infections in young children. It has many of the same symptoms as a cold, such as a sore throat, cough, fever, and a stuffy or runny nose.
The virus itself doesn’t have a recommended treatment (the body will fight it off in time), but blocked nose symptoms can be relieved with nasal saline drops, or suctioning.
Thyroid disorders can lead to nasal stuffiness and sinus congestion. If this is happening for you, speak to your doctor about recommended treatments, as antihistamines and decongestants may be risky if you have thyroid disease4.
Due to hormonal changes, nasal congestion often gets worse during menstruation and pregnancy. Occupational exposure to fumes. In some cases, nonallergic rhinitis is triggered by exposure to an airborne irritant in the workplace (occupational rhinitis)
High levels of stress
Stress and anxiety affect your hormones, neurotransmitters, and immune system, which can lead to nasal congestion. Your first port of call is trying to deal with your stress rather than the congestion. Try meditation, exercise, and a healthier diet for a few weeks, and if you’re still feeling anxious, talk to your doctor about your concerns.
Granulomatosis with polyangiitis
Granulomatosis with polyangiitis is a rare and serious disorder that causes the blood vessels in your nose, sinuses, throat, lungs, and kidneys to become inflamed. It’s highly unlikely that this is the cause of your runny nose, but you should speak to your doctor if you have concerns.
How to get rid of a blocked nose
We’ve included how to get rid of a blocked nose for each cause listed above, but here’s the full list of treatments:
- Nasal sprays (including steroids)
- Decongestants (both over-the-counter and prescription)
- Quit smoking
- Drink less alcohol
- Steam bath, sauna, or a humidifier
- Septoplasty surgery
- Vacuum and dust your home
- Sara Chodosh, 2020, Do I have an alcohol allergy?, Popsci
- Deviated septum – Symptoms and causes, Mayoclinic
- Nonallergic rhinitis – Symptoms and causes, Mayoclinic
- Mary Shomon, 2020, Risks of Decongestants When You Have Thyroid Disease, Verywellhealth