Having a stuffy nose is never a good experience. Not only do you have difficulty breathing and doing your daily tasks, but it can also interfere with your sleep and may even come with other symptoms like headache. But what causes a stuffy nose in the first place, and what is the best way to get rid of it?
Contrary to what most people think, a stuffy nose does not mean that there's excessive mucus clogging the nasal passages. In reality, it occurs when the blood vessels in the sinuses become irritated and inflamed, causing the nasal tissues to swell. Excessive mucus production may manifest with it, though.1,2
According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery, there are several primary causes of stuffy nose, which include:3
• Infections, like the common cold — A stuffy nose may be caused by airborne viruses. When absorbed by the nose, the body releases the chemical histamine, which increases blood flow to the nose and causes swelling of the nasal tissue.
• Allergies — Also known as allergic rhinitis, hay fever, grass fever, rose fever or summertime colds, this happens when there's an exaggerated inflammatory response to a particular substance. Common allergens include pollen, animal dander, mold or house dust.
• Vasomotor rhinitis — This is also called nonallergic rhinitis. Although it has the same symptoms as allergic rhinitis, this is a different condition as it does not involve the immune system.4 It can have many causes such as:
◦ Psychological stress
◦ Exposure to irritating substances like tobacco smoke or perfume
◦ Excessive and prolonged use of decongesting nasal sprays
• Structural abnormalities — People who have deformities in their nose and nasal septum, usually caused by injury, may be prone to stuffy nose. Enlargement of the adenoids, nasal tumors and foreign bodies (such as when children stick small toys into their nose) can be lumped in this category.
6 Ways to Help Get Rid of a Stuffy Nose Fast
The good news is there are simple home remedies that can help alleviate nasal congestion. Try any of these tips and see how effective they are in relieving your stuffy nose:5,6
1. Keep yourself hydrated — Getting enough liquids in your system helps thin the mucus in your nasal passages, pushing them out and decreasing the pressure in your sinuses. Ideally, filtered water should be your beverage of choice, but you can also turn to warm tea, soup, homemade bone broth or coconut water to ease the congestion.
2. Take a hot shower — Step into your shower, turn on the hot water and breathe in the steam. The steam helps reduce inflammation and thin out the mucus in your nasal passageways, allowing your breathing to return to normal, even for a short while.
If you don't feel like bathing, or if you already have but want more relief, you can simply turn on the hot tap water in your bathroom sink. Let the water flow until it reaches the right temperature, put your head above the sink and place a towel over your head. Let the steam build and breathe in deeply. Just make sure not to burn your face on the steam or the hot water.
3. Decongest with a humidifier — If you want an easy way to relieve a stuffy nose, you can use a humidifier. This machine works by converting water into moisture, which then fills the air and adds humidity. This added moisture can help thin the mucus in the nose, as well as soothe the swollen blood vessels and irritated tissues in your nose.
Warm-mist or cool-mist humidifiers are both effective, but if you have a child at home, you may want to use the latter to prevent accidental burning. Always keep the humidifier clean by wiping it down with a 10 percent bleach solution (1 part bleach to 9 parts water) every day, or by following the given instructions. This will prevent mold and bacteria growth.
4. Use a neti pot — Neti pots are not a new trend — rather, they're making a comeback, as they've actually been used for centuries by Ayurvedic practitioners in India. Called "nasal irrigation," this technique makes use of salt water, and is an effective and gentle way to clear up allergens and mucus from nasal passages.
But do neti pots work? Published research claims they do. A 2007 study published in the Archives of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery journal found that among adults who dealt with chronic sinus and nasal problems, those who did nasal irrigation had greater improvement of symptoms as opposed to those who used saline sprays.7
However, remember to use sterile or distilled water when using a neti pot. Do not use tap water due to its potential to harbor contaminants. Here's what to do:
- Stand next to a sink, your head directly above it.
- Put the neti pot's spout in one nostril, and then tilt it until the salt water goes into your nasal passageway.
- Once the water flows inside, it will come out through the other nostril. Let it empty into the sink. Repeat the process, for about a minute. Then do the same to the other nostril.
5. Try a warm compress — This is a simple way to relieve the discomfort that a stuffy nose brings. Soak a towel in warm water, wring out the excess liquid and then place it on the upper part of your face, covering your forehead, eyes, cheek and nose. The warmth from the towel helps ease inflammation and opens up the nasal passageways. You can also try adding salt to the hot water to boost its effect.8 The saline solution's hypertonicity can help eliminate congestion.
6. Use saline sprays — These can be bought in pharmacies without a doctor's prescription. Saline sprays work by shrinking the swollen tissues in the nasal passageways by drawing out water. They also dilute mucus to ease congestion and provide moisture to the nasal cavity.
If you want to make your own saline spray, it's easy: Simply dissolve 2 teaspoons of pure sea salt or Himalayan salt in half a cup of water, bring to a boil, and then let it cool. Place in a squirt bottle or use a dropper to apply into each nostril.
Other Stuffy Nose Home Remedies You Can Try
The strategies mentioned above are the easiest methods to help treat or cure a stuffy nose. However, there may be instances that they do not provide adequate relief. In this case, you may try other ways to help ease the congestion, especially if you're already having trouble with sleep or other daily activities. Here's how to relieve a stuffy nose with easy holistic remedies:9
• Try garlic — Known for its antibacterial and antifungal properties, garlic is said to have potential in easing common cold-related congestion. One research found that people who took a garlic supplement for three months during the cold season had fewer colds compared to those who were given a placebo.10
You can try adding garlic to your food, but here's another technique: Slice up some cloves, place in a small pot with a cup of water, and let it heat up until it's steaming. Carefully inhale the steam (be careful not to burn yourself, though).11,12
• Do a face massage or DIY acupressure — Simply giving your sinuses a gentle massage using your fingertips may help ease the symptoms. Alternately, you can try DIY acupressure. Try placing light pressure on the bridge of your nose using your thumb and index finger. With your other hand, touch the muscles located at either side of the back of your neck.
• Eat horseradish — It contains high amounts of sulfur that may help ease the effects of sinusitis, including mucus buildup. Eating horseradish helps eliminate thick mucus while thinning down new mucus, so it can drain effectively.
Simply place a pinch of freshly grated horseradish into your mouth until the flavor fades. You can use up to a teaspoon if the congestion is really bad. Once the flavor disappears, swallow the horseradish. This helps remove mucus from the back of the throat as well.13 Don't worry if your mucus production seems to increase after trying horseradish — it might just mean that the body is working to eliminate the stored mucus in your passageways.14
• Sip on apple cider vinegar (ACV) — An all-around remedy for many health problems, ACV may help ease congestion in your nasal passageways as well. It contains potassium that can help dilute mucus to be expelled more easily, as well as prevents bacteria growth — a contributor to nasal congestion — with its acetic acid. To use this, just mix a teaspoon in a glass of water and sip on it.
• Drink peppermint tea — The menthol in the tea may help eliminate stuffiness. Use fresh or dried peppermint leaves to make tea, and then try adding lemon and a teaspoon of raw honey, which both have mucolytic properties.15
Do Essential Oils Work for a Stuffy Nose?
The aromatherapeutic uses of essential oils is a practice that has spanned many centuries, owing to the oil's potential for emotional and physical health issues, including nasal congestion. One particular essential oil that brings about this benefit is eucalyptus oil.
According to one 2009 study, published in the journal Laryngoscope, 1,8 cineole,16 the main component in eucalyptus oil, is a safe and effective remedy for sinusitis. It works by clearing mucus from airways, suppressing cough, and clearing bacteria and other microbes from the air.17
The best way to use essential oils for stuffy nose is through inhalation. Add your oil of choice to hot water to produce a therapeutic steam. Adding a drop to your bathwater, mixing it in your massage lotion and placing a few drops on a handkerchief may also work.18
Please note that essential oils are highly concentrated and should not be directly rubbed on your skin or any mucous membrane, otherwise they may cause unwanted side effects. Dilute them first with a carrier oil like coconut, sweet almond or jojoba oil, and/or do a skin patch test prior to using them.
Always Stay Protected From Colds and Flu
As mentioned above, infections such as the common cold and flu are a common cause of nasal congestion. In fact, they are one of the top reasons for doctor visits and sick days, both for employees and schoolchildren. An average American adult will suffer between two and four colds each year.
The good news is that there are lifestyle hacks, herbal remedies and supplements that may help fight the common cold virus — giving your immune system ample support to defend your body against viral attacks. Read this article "Natural Cold Remedies: What Works, What Doesn't" for tips on how to ward off the common cold and the symptoms it brings — including stuffy nose.