We're guessing you don't think about your nose too often — until it's stuffed up, running and making you generally miserable. A runny nose usually develops because of rhinitis, which is an inflammation of your nasal lining. But the causes of that swelling, the symptoms you'll experience and the treatment you should seek all depend on what triggered the swelling in the first place. Read on to learn more about a runny nose and what to do about it.
Among the most “common” cause of a runny nose is a cold, cough or flu. These infections develop after a virus infects your upper respiratory tract: your mouth, nose, sinuses and throat. As the infection sets in, you’ll experience some inflammation and irritation of your respiratory tract, which gets worse as your immune system kicks in to fight the virus. This inflammation triggers swelling in your sinuses (that's the rhinitis and the congestion) and increases mucus production (that’s the runny nose). After your immune system fights off the infection, the swelling — and the congestion that goes with it — starts to subside and your runny nose gets better.
While cold or flu season often triggers pesky nasal congestion, an upper respiratory tract infection isn’t the only potential cause of a stuffy nose. Continued exposure to irritants, like smoke or other particulates in the air, can also trigger inflammation in your nasal passages and cause a runny nose. Allergies activate your immune system, triggering an immune response and accompanying inflammation, which can lead to cold-like symptoms even in the absence of an actual infection.
Further, according to Harvard Medical School's Harvard Health Publications, less obvious factors like stress, hormone fluctuations, exposure to hot or cold weather, potent smells, certain foods and medications can also make your nose run.
Of course, the runny nose and “stuffed-up” pressure of nasal congestion are all too familiar, but a runny nose might cause other symptoms, too. Excess mucus in your nose may drain down into your throat — a condition called post-nasal drip — that can cause a sore throat. You might also be hoarse or feel as if you have a “lump in your throat” or develop a cough to remove the excess mucus.
The same conditions that cause a runny nose can trigger other symptoms, too. Allergies, for example, can cause itchy eyes, sneezing and an itchy palate, while a cold, cough or flu can cause body aches and fever.
When coping with a stuffy nose, your first instinct is to reach for the tissues. But if you’re blowing your nose wrong, you may actually make your congestion worse. Blowing your nose aggressively can further irritate your nasal lining, causing more congestion.
Go Ask Alice, a health service at Columbia University, recommends holding a tissue under your nose to catch any dripping, or blowing gently into a tissue, one nostril at a time. Taking a hot shower, simply inhaling steam or eating spicy foods may also help. You can also relieve congestion using a neti pot, which flushes out mucus using warm salt water.
Of course, if your runny nose stems from a cold, flu or cough, gently blowing your nose, using a neti pot or inhaling steam relieves congestion only temporarily. Because the underlying infection (and swelling) is still there, your running nose will come back.
For longer-lasting relief, look for a cough, cold or flu medication that contains a decongestant to reduce nasal swelling. Look for products containing Pseudoephedrine HCI or Phenylephrine HCI, which are found in Mucinex® D and most of the products in the Maximum * Mucinex® Fast-Max® line of products, respectively.
If your nasal congestion stems from an underlying respiratory illness, these extra steps may help you recover (and stop the source of that runny nose):
- Get plenty of rest: Nothing replaces rest for clearing an infection. Manage your symptoms with a doctor-approved, over-the-counter medication to help you get high-quality sleep.
- Stay hydrated and eat healthy: Nourish your body so your immune system can do its job.
- Clear the air: Invest in an air purifier to remove allergens and irritants that might worsen or prolong your congestion. This may also relieve a runny nose between colds.
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Nasal Congestion
- Go Ask Alice: Nose Won’t Stop Running
- Harvard Medical School: Allergic Rhinitis: Your Nose Knows
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Colds and the Flu
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Allergic Rhinitis
- Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai: Post-Nasal Drip