Why do we get nose congestion?

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Guest Author, Lyndsay Krisher

The Museum’s Health Sciences Department is partnering with the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus to publish a monthly series on the Museum blog called “Know Health”. The articles focus on current health topics selected by CU’s medical and graduate students in order to provide both English and Spanish speaking communities with current, accurate information. The posts in the “Know Health” series are edited versions of articles that first appeared in Contrapoder magazine. Thank you to the students at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus for bringing these stories to life.


(aka Dr. Nicole Garneau, chair and curator, Health Sciences Department)


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Guest Author, Lyndsay Krisher, is the Guatemala Project Specialist at the Center for Global Health at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.

(en Español)

We all can relate to nasal congestion, especially during cold and allergy seasons. Rhinitis, better known as a “stuffy nose,” is irritation or inflammation of the nose and nasal membranes that range from annoying to intolerable.  Although there are many causes of nasal congestion, there are four primary sources: viral and bacterial infections, allergic reactions, non-allergic reactions, and structural problems.

If you’ve ever had a cold, you likely had a viral infection caused by one of many viruses that are constantly circulating. The average person experiences as many as three colds per year, although children may experience even more as their immunity is still developing. Contrary to popular belief, most cold viruses are spread by contact – not through the air. This is why frequent hand-washing is critical to preventing a cold. After the virus enters your nose, your body releases histamine, a chemical which creates a surge in blood flow to the nose and causes nasal tissues to swell. This aggravates the nasal membranes, which results in excessive amounts of mucus that ultimately causes your nasal congestion. You can relieve the symptoms of a viral cold, but you cannot cure it. Ultimately, your body needs time to fight the infection, which can last up to 10 days. In the meantime, antihistamines and decongestants, as well as humidifiers and saline nasal sprays can relieve symptoms. While viral infections are more common and self-limiting, bacterial infections are another cause of nasal congestion. Severe bacterial infections can escalate to sinus infections, a more serious condition that can be treated with antibiotics.

Unlike viral and bacterial infections, allergic reactions only affect some people. They are an inflammatory response to a specific substance, such as pollen, animal hair, mold, or dust. Allergies cause a variety of symptoms, like a stuffy nose, sneezing, itchy/watery eyes, and an irritated throat. Allergies are often seasonal. As with viral and bacterial infections, antihistamines and decongestants may be used to help relieve some symptoms. For severe allergies, physician-prescribed treatments may help alleviate symptoms for some individuals, but are not helpful for all allergies.

Aside from allergies and infections, there are other factors that are associated with nasal congestion. For example, poor thyroid function, pregnancy, and irritants like smoke or perfume can increase blood flow to the nose, leading to congestion. Although these conditions are generally temporary, if the congestion is not addressed, the blood vessels may lose their ability to properly constrict, and require treatment such as surgery.

Finally, structural abnormalities of the nose may cause obstruction, making breathing difficult. These abnormalities may be congenital or a result of injury. Corrective surgery may be necessary in these cases.

Nasal congestion can be disruptive to our health and wellbeing. When a stuffy nose is accompanied by high fever, nausea, or a severe headache these could be signs of a more serious problem.  So next time you are “stuffed up,” consider the severity and possible causes of the condition in determining the treatment approach.

Sources: American Rhinologic Society, American Academy of Otolaryngology (Head and Neck Surgery)

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