There are many underlying causes for a stuffy nose (also called congestion), but contrary to popular belief the nostrils are not clogged by mucous. A stuffy nose happens primarily because nasal tissues are inflamed. Often, this is from the common cold virus or allergies. Because infants do not know how to breathe out of their mouth, a stuffy nose can be quite serious (ie. RSV), but for the rest of us it's usually just an annoyance that can interfere with our daily activities.
Over-the-counter medications that work to shrink the blood vessels inside of the nose can be effective. Some work better for allergies than for a colds, such as Claritin or Benadryl. These drugs are known as antihistamines. Drugs that contain a medication called pseudoephedrine are effective for colds. (However, per the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, cough and cold medications are not recommended for children under six.)
Also, while these medications can improve comfort they do have side effects, so here are some other things you can try before taking medication:
- keep your head elevated
- drink a lot of water
- use a cool mist humidifier
- use over-the-counter saline nasal sprays
- use a menthol cream on your chest
- use over-the-counter adhesive strips that help keep your nostrils open
- suck on a cough drop that has menthol in it
- for infants, a bulb syringe can help remove secretions
Most of the time congestion problem will clear up in a week or so. You should see a doctor, however, if: you have a high fever, your symptoms last longer than a couple of weeks, your nasal passages become completely blocked, if your skin develops a bluish tint or if you breathing rate becomes very fast.
Other CausesSometimes children put things up their nose that can become lodged and cause congestion-like problems, this is called foreign object nasal obstruction. Children also can get a stuffy nose from enlarged adenoids, which often need to be surgically removed. Among adults, structural abnormalities, such as a deviated septum or enlarged turbinates, can cause congestion-like problems.
Medline Plus. Nasal Congestion. Accessed: November 12, 2009 from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003049.htm
University of Maryland Medical Center. Nasal Congestion - Overview. Accessed: November 12, 2009 from http://www.umm.edu/ency/article/003049.htm