Mucus isn’t just a slimy material in your nose—it actually has a useful purpose. Mucus traps bacteria and debris and prevents it from entering your lungs.
In some cases—such as when you have a cold or allergies—mucus may flow out of your nose or down your throat instead of staying in your nose. When mucus comes out of your nose, it is called nasal discharge, or more commonly, a runny nose.
Nasal discharge can also be called post-nasal drip or rhinorrhea.
Although it is annoying, nasal discharge is common and usually goes away on its own. In some cases though, nasal discharge is a sign of a more serious problem that requires medical attention.
There are many potential causes for nasal discharge. Some of the most common include:
The Common Cold or the Flu
The common cold is the result of a viral infection in your nose and throat. According to the Mayo Clinic, more than 100 different viruses can cause the common cold (Mayo Clinic, 2011). Though a cold might make you feel miserable, it is typically harmless in the long run.
The flu is the result of a virus that attacks your nose, throat, and lungs. Unlike the common cold, the flu can be dangerous for people who are at high risk, such as for children and the elderly.
Nasal discharge is a very routine symptom for both the common cold and the flu. When you are sick with these illnesses, your body makes extra mucus—in order to trap the virus before it can make its way to your lungs and other parts of your body. Some of this mucus leaves your body through your nose.
You might experience nasal discharge if you are allergic to a certain substance and you touch it or inhale it. Materials that cause an allergic reaction are called allergens. Common allergens include dust, pet hair, and grass. Your body reacts to the allergens as though they were harmful bacteria, causing your nose to run.
If you have this condition, mucus may drain out of your nose, or you might feel it moving into your throat. Mucus associated with sinusitis is usually thick. It can also have a yellow or green hue to it.
Other Potential Causes
Many, many things can lead to a runny nose. A few potential causes include:
- hay fever
- deviated septum
- cluster headache
- drug addiction
In general, you should be able to reduce your nasal discharge at home.
Thinning Out Mucus
You should focus on making sure your mucus is thin, and not sticky or thick. Thick, sticky mucus can cause problems with your breathing and put you at greater risk for complications, such as ear infections.
One way to thin out your mucus is to drink plenty of fluids. You can also use a saline nasal spray, or turn on a humidifier to add water to the air. Do not use a decongestant nasal spray for more than three days in a row, unless your doctor has told you to do so.
Antihistamines are drugs that prevent the symptoms of allergies. Some antihistamines can make you extremely drowsy. Always check the label for recommendations about operating heavy machinery or performing other tasks while taking the medication.
Antihistamines can also react with other medications. Be sure to talk with your doctor before taking antihistamines, especially if you already use muscle relaxers, sleeping pills, or sedatives.
Addressing Cold and Flu
If a cold or flu is causing your nasal discharge, there is not much treatment available. You should be sure to get plenty of rest and drink lots of fluids. If your flu symptoms are severe, your doctor might prescribe you an antiviral medication. This may reduce the time it takes for you to heal.
Unfortunately, you cannot prevent all nasal discharge. However, you can prevent the conditions that cause excessive nasal discharge.
To avoid nasal discharge as a result of the cold or the flu, wash your hands often to keep them free of germs and bacteria. Use a tissue when blowing your nose, and throw your used tissues away immediately. You should wash your hands after blowing your nose as well. One way to effectively protect against the flu is to get a flu vaccine every year.
If allergies are the cause of your discharge, you should avoid the materials that you know cause your symptoms. It might help to identify your allergens if you keep a daily journal of your activities.
Avoid cigarette smoke, or quit smoking if you already do. This can help keep your nasal passages from becoming irritated and inflamed.