How to Clear a Stuffy Nose

Medically reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on September 12, 2013Written by Kimberly Holland
sick man

A stuffy nose can be annoying. Your nose drips and runs; you sound funny when you talk; and just when you want to blow your nose to finally breathe again, nothing comes out. Many people mistakenly think a stuffy nose is the result of too much mucus in your nasal passages. A stuffy or clogged nose is actually caused by inflamed blood vessels in your sinuses. These irritated blood vessels are usually caused by a cold, the flu, allergies, or a sinus infection. Whatever is causing your stuffed-up nose, here are eight ways to get your nose unclogged so you can feel—and breathe—better.

Use a Humidifier


Breathing in moist air can help soothe irritated tissue and swollen blood vessels in your nose and sinuses. A humidifier machine can increase the humidity in your room easily. The machine converts water to moisture that slowly fills the air. Humidifiers also thin the mucus in your sinuses, which can help empty the fluids in your nose and return your breathing to normal. When you breathe in the humid air, you’ll help relieve the inflammation and irritation that cause your congestion.

Take a Shower


Ever had a stuffy nose and found that you could breathe so much better after a steamy shower? There’s a good reason for that. Like the humidifier, the steam from a shower helps to thin out the mucus in your nose and sinuses and reduce inflammation. As a result, your breathing should return to normal, at least for a short period.

You can get the same effect by breathing in steam from hot water in a sink. Turn on the hot water. Once the temperature is right, place a towel over your head and the sink. Allow the steam to build, and take in deep breaths. Be careful not to burn your face on the hot water or steam.

Stay Hydrated


Keep the fluids flowing when your nose is stuffed up. Almost all liquids—water, sports drinks, tea, soup, even juice—can help keep you hydrated when you’re sick. They help thin the mucus in your nasal passages, which decreases the pressure in your sinuses and pushes the fluids out of your nose. Less pressure means less inflammation and irritation.

If your stuffy nose is accompanied by a sore throat, warm tea and soup will help ease the pain and discomfort from that, too.

Use a Saline Spray

saline spray

Take hydration one step further with saline. Use a nasal saline spray to increase the moisture in your nasal passages. The spray helps thin the mucus in your nasal passages, which decreases the inflammation of your blood vessels and helps empty fluids. Saline sprays are available over-the-counter.

Some saline sprays also include decongestant medication. Talk with your pharmacist before you begin using the saline sprays with decongestants. They may actually make your congestion worse if used more than three days. Plus, if you’re taking other medications, the decongestant may cause side effects.

Drain Your Sinuses


It’s not the most glamorous task, but you can flush your clogged passages with a neti pot. A neti pot is designed to push water through your nasal passages. The Food and Drug Administration recommends distilled or sterile water instead of tap water. To use a neti pot, tilt your head over a sink. Place the spout of the pot in the nostril. Tilt the neti pot until water enters your nasal passages. Once the water flows into your nasal passages, it will exit your other nostril and empty into the sink. Do this for a minute or more, then switch sides.

Use a Warm Compress


The same way warm steam from a shower helps open your nasal passages from the inside, a warm compress may help open them from the outside. Soak a towel in warm water. Squeeze the water out of the towel, then fold it and place it over your face, especially at your nose and forehead. The heat can provide comfort from any pain, and the warmth may help relieve some of the inflammation in the nasal passages. Repeat this as often as necessary.

Try OTC Decongestants


A decongestant medication can help reduce swelling and ease pain associated with irritated and inflamed nasal passages. Many decongestant medications are available without a doctor’s prescription. They come in two forms: nasal spray or pill. Common decongestant nasal sprays include Afrin and Sinex. Common decongestant pills include Sudafed and Sudogest. (Many of these medicines are kept behind the pharmacy counter. Just ask for them at the counter.)

Use both types of decongestant correctly and safely. You should not take a decongestant medication for more than three days without a doctor’s supervision. After three days, a nasal decongestant may actually make your congestion and stuffiness worse.

Try Antihistamines or Allergy Medicine

allergy medicine

If your stuffy nose is the result of an allergy, you may want to take an antihistamine or allergy medicine. Both medicines can help reduce the swelling and inflammation in your nasal passages, which can ease your clogged up nose. Combination medicines with both an antihistamine and a decongestant can relieve the sinus pressure and swelling caused by allergic reactions. Follow the instructions for these medicines carefully. If you don’t, you may make your condition worse, not better.

Antihistamines may make you drowsy. If you do not know how an antihistamine will affect you, do not take the medicine when you need to be active or productive.

You Can Find Relief from a Stuffy Nose

get relief

A congested nose can be uncomfortable, but a few at-home remedies can bring relief, clean out your nasal passages, and ease the swelling and inflammation that caused the stuffy nose in the first place. A few medicines may even help, too, but you’ll want to use them carefully. If you take a decongestant, antihistamine, or allergy medicine for more than three days and do not find relief, make an appointment to see your doctor. Also, talk with your pharmacist when picking an OTC medicine. Though the medicines are available over the counter, they can be dangerous if not used correctly.

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