What Is Congestion Caused By?

Reviewed on 5/24/2022
A woman with nasal congestion caused by allergies blowing her nose
Causes of nasal congestion include the common cold, influenza ("the flu"), sinus infection, hay fever or other allergies, COVID-19, using over-the-counter (OTC) nasal sprays or drops for more than 3 days, chemical irritants, nasal polyps, vasomotor rhinitis, and pregnancy.

Congestion (also called a stuffy nose) is swelling of the tissues lining the nose. People often mistakenly believe that congestion happens when there is excess mucus in the sinuses, but congestion actually occurs due to inflamed blood vessels.

10 Main Causes of Congestion

Causes of nasal congestion include: 

What Are Symptoms of Congestion?

Nasal congestion is a symptom in itself. Signs of nasal congestion include: 

  • Stuffy nose
  • Runny nose
  • Sinus pain
  • Postnasal drip, which may also cause: 
  • Heavy feeling in the head

See a doctor if you have nasal congestion and: 

  • Swelling of the forehead, eyes, side of the nose, or cheek or that is accompanied by blurry vision
  • Throat pain
  • White or yellow spots on the tonsils or other parts of the throat
  • Nasal discharge 
    • With a bad odor
    • That comes from just one side
    • Is a color other than white or yellow
    • Is accompanied by fever
  • A cough that lasts more than 10 days
  • Cough that produces yellow-green or gray mucus
  • Nasal discharge following a head injury
  • Symptoms last more than 3 weeks

How Is Congestion Diagnosed?

The cause of nasal congestion is diagnosed with a patient history and a physical examination that focuses on the ears, nose, throat, and airways.

Tests used to diagnose the cause of the congestion may include:

  • Blood tests
  • Sputum culture and throat culture
  • Allergy skin tests
  • X-rays of the sinuses 
  • Chest X-ray

What Is the Treatment for a Stuffy Nose (Nasal Congestion)?

Nasal congestion may often be treated with home remedies to ease the symptoms, such as: 

  • Drinking plenty of clear fluids 
  • Inhaling steam 2 to 4 times a day, such as in the shower
  • Nasal wash to help remove mucus from the nose
  • Applying a warm, moist washcloth to the face several times a day    
  • Using a vaporizer or humidifier
  • Use nasal saline spray 3 to 4 times per day
  • Use adhesive strips placed on the nose to widen nostrils 
  • Keep the head elevated, since congestion is often worse when lying down
  • For allergies
    • Avoid allergy triggers
    • Prescription nasal sprays
  • Over-the-counter (OTC) medications to relieve symptoms 
    • Decongestants to help dry up a runny or stuffy nose
    • Antihistamines to treat allergy symptoms    
    • Nasal sprays to help relieve stuffiness
      • Don't use over-the-counter nasal sprays more than 3 days on and 3 days off, unless directed to do so by your doctor because excess use can worsen congestion

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Reviewed on 5/24/2022
Image Source: iStock Images