Even though a stuffy nose is rarely the most debilitating part of being sick, it's straight up the most annoying. After all, blowing your nose incessantly and breathing through your half-open mouth isn't ideal or particularly flattering for that matter. You sit there, crumpled-up tissues in hand, reflecting on all the times that you took your smooth and clear inhalations for granted. We know. We've been there.
According to Mia Finkelston, MD, a stuffy nose results from general swelling and inflammation in the mucus membranes. She calls this a "normal bodily function," though it "causes increased mucus production" and usually results from a cold or upper-respiratory infection. Daniel Berliner, MD, adds that it can also be the result of "environmental allergens, like pollens" during fall and spring. Though over-the-counter medications can work for most stuffy noses, "allergy causes do often need special allergy shots to help people tolerate the allergy season."
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Luckily, there are a number of small actions you can take to rid this major nuisance from your daily life.
Keep reading to see all the things that Finkelston and Berliner recommend you do to alleviate your stuffy nose.
Expose Your Body to Cool Air
If you're sick, you likely try to keep yourself as warm and comfortable as possible. While exposing yourself to cool air might seem counterintuitive, Finkelston says it can be crazy effective. "Cool air does wonders to shrink the membranes and decrease swelling," she says. "This shrinkage can be temporary, but it will help to alleviate some of the pressure, and it will help you breathe a bit easier." Think of it like putting an ice pack on a swollen lip. The cool temperature alleviates the size and puffiness of the area, allowing you to feel more comfortable.
Finkelston says this could be as simple as walking outside into the cool air. If you live somewhere warm though, "run a cool-mist vaporizer or just stick your head in the freezer for a few seconds." It's that easy.
Use Saltwater-Based Nasal Spray
Nasal spray is a must for a persistent stuffy nose. "If you need medication, I recommend staying away from any multi-symptom cold reliever, and instead spray a nasal spray twice in each nostril two times a day for one week and then once a day for another week," Finkelston says. "Make sure you are bending over so your nose points toward your toes to administer the spray properly." The saltwater in nasal spray decreases the swelling of the mucus membrane, letting congestion out and air in.
Choose Your Over-the-Counter Decongestant Wisely
No matter what is causing your stuffy nose, over-the-counter decongestants should provide some relief. Berliner notes that most common nostril congestion is caused by allergies or the common cold. "For both, over-the-counter medication is usually helpful."
Determining the cause of your congestion should help you decide on a medication. If you're suffering from allergy-related symptoms, taking a non-drowsy allergic medication like Claritin ($5) is a good place to start. For colds, reach for something like Mucinex ($22).
Prop Yourself Up
"Another method that helps to effectively treat a stuffy nose is to prop yourself up in bed or on a recliner," Finkelston says. "This helps to decrease the swelling. Plus, if there is mucus dripping down the back of your throat (which is inevitable), it will make it less likely to cause a cough as it collects in your upper airway." Try layering a couple of pillows behind your back to keep you lying comfortably upright. Or try a bedrest pillow. These are usually stuffed more firmly than traditional pillows, making it easy to keep upright yet relaxed while you're lying in bed. You may find that it's easier to breathe at night than when you lie completely flat in bed.
Take a Hot Shower
This is sort of the opposite of the cold air trick, but steam can be another great way to loosen up mucus trapped in the nasal cavity. If you need some instant relief, hop into a warm shower. A study found that this is likely to be more effective for the stuffiness caused by a cold or flu rather than from a chronic infection. If discomfort persists for more than a week or two, you should see a doctor to get to the bottom of underlying causes.
Stay Away from Antihistamines
This advice might sound counterproductive, but it's not. Finkelston says that by using over-the-counter antihistamines, you could be exacerbating the effects of your stuffy nose and possibly even causing it to hang around longer, especially if it's not caused by allergies.
"I also discourage antihistamines," she says. 'These can dry your nasal passages and can turn mucus into glue cement—this can lead to sinusitis." Instead, reach for an over-the-counter mucus thinner or medicated vapor rub. The former helps to cure your runny nose faster while the latter "can work wonders to help you breathe easier at night."
We know—a week without cheese is... barely even a week at all. But dairy addicts might notice a marked uptick in congestion after eating a quesadilla or slurping a glass of chocolate milk. While scientists don't have a complete understanding of the relationship between dairy and mucus, one study did find that going dairy-free can be helpful in cutting down on congestion.
If you find yourself feeling worse after circling a cheese plate, you may want to cut dairy products from your diet until your cold passes.
Look for Signs of Sinus Infection
So you have a stuffy nose that just isn't letting up. Maybe it doesn't feel like a cold. You could have a sinus or ear infection, notes Berliner. "Infections of the sinuses and blockage of the tube from the ear to the nose (the Eustachian tube) that do cause nasal congestion require special attention and need to be identified as sinus and middle ear conditions." In other words, you'll need to see a doctor for these.