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graphic showing a human head and nasal passage

What Causes Nasal Congestion: Nasal Inflammation with Allergic Rhinitis

Medically Reviewed By:
Dr. Shuba Iyengar, MD, MPH
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Dr. Shuba Iyengar, MD, MPH
After graduating from UC Berkeley, Shuba completed medical school at Duke University, earning her MPH in tandem at UNC. After a research fellowship at the NIH, Shuba completed her residency at Stanford, then fellowship in allergy-immunology at Boston Childrens/Harvard.

Shuba returned to the Bay Area to join Dr. Bocian at a large multi-speciality health system where she helped lead an allergy practice. She cofounded Allermi to make expert allergy care more accessible for all.
Written by:
Katelyn Johnson, B.S., M.B.A, CMA
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Katelyn Johnson, B.S., M.B.A, CMA
Katelyn Johnson is a freelance writer, Certified Medical Assistant, and Nationally Registered EMT with 8+ years of clinical experience across multiple specialties. She has a Bachelor’s in Biology, Master’s in Healthcare Administration, and is currently obtaining a Bachelor’s in Nursing. Katelyn is an advocate for providing patient education in an approachable way through online resources.

 Wondering what causes nasal congestion or nasal inflammation? Let’s talk about it! Having a stuffy nose or feeling like you can’t breathe through your nose is uncomfortable, annoying, and overall is just not a fun time. 

Unfortunately, there are a lot of things that can cause nasal inflammation. Here’s a look at the causes of nasal congestion, nasal congestion treatment options, and what happens in your nose when it feels congested.    

  

What is Nasal Congestion?

Nasal congestion commonly referred to as a “stuffy nose”, is inflammation in the nasal tissues that blocks normal airflow patterns. Essentially, with nasal congestion, you cannot move air through your nose, requiring you to breathe through your mouth. 

The severity can range from mild where only a fraction of air is blocked to severe where there is no movement of air at all. 

a person experiencing nasal congestion from allergies

 

What Happens in the Nose With Nasal Congestion? 

No matter the severity, the same things are happening in the nose that is giving you that feeling. When you are experiencing nasal congestion, an inflammatory immune response is happening in your nasal tissues which is our body's way of trying to fight off foreign invaders. 

When exposed to an irritant, the cells in the membrane of the nasal cavity release chemicals like histamine that cause blood vessels to dilate (get bigger) and leak fluid into the surrounding tissues which make them swell. The nasal membrane also typically begins to produce excess mucus during this process to essentially “wash away” the invaders. 

Simply put, something damages cells in your nose triggering swelling and reducing the space for airflow in your nasal passages leading to the feeling of a stuffy nose. 

graphic showing inner nasal cavity and inflammation caused by allergic rhinitits

 

How Does Nasal Congestion Affect My Body?

Now, having nasal inflammation can cause additional symptoms and affect other areas of the body as well. 

Other sinus symptoms that often accompany nasal inflammation include a runny nose or postnasal drip from the excess mucus and facial pain or sinus pressure caused by swelling. 

You may experience changes in other areas of the body as well like a sore throat, a dry throat, ear pain, and general fatigue.

  

What Triggers Nasal Congestion?

Now that we know what is happening as we experience symptoms, let’s look at what the “foreign invaders” we mentioned could be. 

Triggers of nasal inflammation include a viral infection like the common cold, a bacterial infection which is often referred to as a sinus infection, and hay fever or allergic reactions and congestion from seasonal allergies

Nasal polyps, which are non-cancerous growths in your nasal cavity caused by recurring inflammation, can also be a trigger of chronic nasal congestion. 

  

What Are The Most Common Causes Of Nasal Congestion?

Most cases of nasal congestion can be attributed to allergic rhinitis, rhinosinusitis or sinusitis, and non-allergic rhinitis. All of those triggers we mentioned fall into one of these common causes.

 

Allergic Rhinitis

Allergic rhinitis is the most prevalent cause of nasal congestion affecting millions of people in the United States and around the world. In this case, nasal inflammation is triggered by allergens like pollen, dust mites, or pet dander. 

These allergens enter the nose when we breathe and our immune system begins its attack through the process we described above creating nasal congestion. 

Allergic rhinitis is sometimes called hay fever and can be used to describe all of the symptoms caused by environmental allergens including sneezing, itching, postnasal drip, and runny nose. 

 

Rhinosinusitis and Sinusitis

Rhinosinusitis and sinusitis are inflammation caused by a viral or bacterial infection. 

Rhinosinusitis is when this inflammation affects the nasal passages and sinus cavities while sinusitis is when just the sinus cavities are affected. With a sinus infection, whether it affects both areas or just one, the virus or bacteria cause damage to the cells leading to the same inflammatory response we’ve been talking about which we feel as nasal congestion. 

The common cold is one of the viruses you see often with this usually lasting about 3 days, while a sinus infection caused by bacteria lasts up to 10 days. You may hear the terms chronic rhinosinusitis and chronic sinusitis. 

Chronic rhinosinusitis and chronic sinusitis are when your symptoms persist or recur for extended periods of time even after treatment. With both of these, you’ll likely have chronic nasal congestion and it can eventually lead to the nasal polyps we were talking about. 

  

Non-Allergic Rhinitis

Many of the other cases of inflammation in the nasal passages are considered non-allergic rhinitis. Non-allergic rhinitis is essentially nasal inflammation with no known trigger meaning it's not allergens, viruses, or bacteria. 

  

Nasal Congestion Treatment 

As we all know, life is a lot better when you can breathe through your nose, so how do you clear a stuffy nose? Nasal congestion treatment options depend on the cause.

  

Treatments For Allergic Rhinitis

Allergic rhinitis may plague a ton of people each year, but luckily, there are some great treatments for nasal allergies. Nasal sprays as a whole are the most effective since nasal sprays target the nasal passage directly. 

These include nasal decongestant sprays, nasal antihistamine sprays, saline sprays, and more. Nasal decongestant sprays constrict the blood vessels in the nose reducing swelling and antihistamine sprays prevent the cells from releasing histamine. The saline spray keeps things clean and moist and helps thin any excess mucus. 

Oral antihistamines or nasal decongestants work in the same way as nasal sprays, though they are not as effective as the medication is absorbed throughout the body and is not targeted. Additionally, they pose more risk for side effects. 

Allergy shots which are micro-doses of allergens given over a period of time to build natural immunity are another option, though they take months or years to work making them a last resort for nasal congestion from allergies. 

 

Other Less Common Nasal Congestion Treatments 

Treatments for nasal inflammation caused by other triggers include sinus surgeries, antibiotics, and steroids. 

 

Home Remedies

Many people swear by home remedies that help relieve nasal congestion like Vick’s VapoRub, humidifiers or steam, nasal irrigation, warm compresses, various herbs and vitamins, as well as head elevation. 

Though these may work for you, they can have low rates of success and sometimes pose health risks.  

 

When Should You Seek Medical Treatment?

You should seek medical treatment from licensed healthcare providers if you have a stuffy nose accompanied by sinus pressure and facial pain especially if symptoms persist for more than 10 days. If your mucus is yellow or green, that can be an indicator that you need to see a health professional as well. 

Otherwise, seeing licensed healthcare providers is a good idea if you are still having symptoms while using one or more over-the-counter medications, if it is affecting your daily routine, or if it is simply just annoying you. 

 

Allermi: The Best Treatment for Allergy-Related Nasal Congestion

Nasal inflammation or congestion may be a common symptom of seasonal allergies, but it is not the only one that Allermi treats. Allermi is a customized, all-in-one allergy nasal spray treating every symptom of hay fever or allergic rhinitis. See for yourself how you can get rid of your stuffy nose and more with a free 30-day trial of Allermi!