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What is postnasal drip?
Postnasal drip is a common occurrence, affecting almost everyone at some point in their lives. The glands in your nose and throat continually produce mucus to:
- fight infection
- moisten nasal membranes
- filter out foreign matter
You typically swallow the mucus without even realizing it.
When your body starts producing extra mucus, you might feel it accumulate in the back of your throat. You may also feel it dripping down your throat from your nose. This is called postnasal drip.
Common symptoms of postnasal drip include:
- feeling that you need to constantly clear your throat or swallow
- a cough that’s worse at night
- nausea from excess mucus moving into your stomach
- sore, scratchy throat
- bad breath
A number of conditions can cause postnasal drip. Allergies are one of the most common. If you get tested for allergies, you can better avoid your triggers or premedicate if you know you’ll be exposed.
Another common cause is a deviated septum, which means that the thin wall of cartilage between your nostrils (or septum) is displaced or leans to one side. This makes one nasal passage smaller, and can prevent proper mucus drainage, resulting in postnasal drip.
Other causes of postnasal drip include:
- cold temperatures
- viral infections resulting in the cold or flu
- sinus infections
- changes in the weather
- dry air
- spicy foods
- certain medications, including some blood pressure and birth control prescriptions
In some cases, the problem causing postnasal drip isn’t excessive mucus, but your throat’s inability to clear it. Swallowing problems or gastric reflux can cause liquids to build up in your throat, which feels like postnasal drip.
You can turn to a number of home treatments to relieve the symptoms of postnasal drip. Over-the-counter decongestants like pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) can help reduce congestion and eliminate postnasal drip.
Newer, nondrowsy antihistamines like loratadine-pseudoephedrine (Claritin) can work to get rid of postnasal drip. However, these are more effective after you take them for several days.
Saline nasal sprays can help moisten your nasal passages and reduce symptoms of postnasal drip. If you have continual problems with postnasal drip, your doctor may prescribe a cortisone steroid nasal spray. Sinus irrigation tools like neti pots or sinus rinses like those from NeilMed can also flush out excess mucus.
Sleeping with your head slightly elevated can also promote proper drainage.
Staying hydrated is just as important to prevent postnasal drip as it is to treat it. Drinking warm or hot liquid, like tea or chicken soup, can thin out mucus and prevent dehydration. And as always, don’t forget to drink plenty of water. This also thins out mucus and keeps your nasal passages moistened, relieving discomfort.
Make an appointment with your doctor if your symptoms have persisted through home treatments for more than 10 days.
There are some symptoms that could indicate it’s time to take a trip to the doctor. These include:
- mucus with a strong odor
These may be symptoms of a bacterial infection, which needs antibiotics. There’s a common misconception that yellow or green mucus indicates an infection. This color change is part of the immune response, where infection-fighting neutrophils rush to the area. These cells contain a greenish-colored enzyme that can turn the mucus the same color.
In the cases of a deviated septum, corrective surgery may be the only way to permanently treat postnasal drip. This surgery (called a septoplasty) tightens and straightens the nasal septum. Some parts of the nasal septum may need to be removed to do this.
If you think GERD, acid reflux, or trouble swallowing could be causing the feeling of postnasal drip, your primary care physician can run tests and prescribe medications to check for other health problems.
The best way to prevent postnasal drip is to reduce exposure to allergens as much as possible. Here are a few tips:
- Take a daily allergy medication or get regular allergy shots.
- Keep your home as clean and dust-free as possible.
- Use mattress and pillow covers to protect against dust mites.
- Change air filters on your heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system regularly.
- Shower before bed whenever you’ve spent a lot of time outside if you’re allergic to pollen.
Most postnasal drip is benign, if annoying. If you experience any additional symptoms alongside the postnasal drip, consider making an appointment with your doctor for treatment recommendations.