An occasional stuffy or runny nose is normally no cause for concern, but how do you know if your discomfort is due to nasal congestion? Typically, nasal congestion is a sign of inflammation or swollen and irritated nasal tissues that often occurs after an illness.
But there are circumstances where nasal congestion could be a sign of something more serious that warrants medical attention from an ENT doctor or sinus specialist.
What Is Nasal Congestion and How Does it Develop?
The nose is arguably one of the most underappreciated parts of the human body until congestion or inflammation strikes. Optimal airflow through the nose requires clear and open nostrils and airways. Unfortunately, in times of illness, especially due to allergies, sinus infections, or environmental and physiological conditions, the moist membranes lining the airways in the nasal cavities become irritated, inflamed, swollen, and in some cases infected.
Inflammation and swollen nostrils can make breathing difficult due to a buildup of mucus and is often referred to as nasal congestion. A stuffy nose or nasal discharge are often the first signs of nasal congestion many people notice when experiencing cold, flu, COVID, sinus, and other upper respiratory symptoms. Nasal congestion can also be caused by abnormalities in the nasal structures from tumors, polyps, a deviated septum, etc.
Usually, mild cases of nasal congestion caused by the common cold or allergies go away without medical treatment. It’s common practice for people to use over-the-counter antihistamines and decongestants to help clear their sinuses and nostrils to alleviate the stuffiness so they can breathe better.
However, these therapeutics are best for certain situations and short-term, occasional use. They are not always effective, and for some, their positive effects are short-lived or leave much to be desired for symptom relief.
Most Common Causes of Nasal Congestion
Nasal congestion that comes and goes several times a month is often indicative of sinusitis. Sinusitis is a condition that develops when the sinus cavities inside of the head become inflamed and at times infected. Normally, sinus infections take two to three weeks to clear up.
But severe or chronic symptoms that lead to lingering or persistent nasal congestion can take much longer to resolve without medical intervention. Many acute and chronic sinus sufferers experience congestion so severe that it impacts their daily lives.
There are several types of sinus inflammations that lead to nasal congestion, each defined by symptom severity and duration.
Acute sinus inflammation/infections are the most common. They are often triggered by viruses and bacterial infections like the cold, flu, and COVID. Nasal congestion that lasts up to 4 weeks is considered acute and, in many cases, doesn’t require medical attention.
Subacute simply means persistent nasal congestion and other sinus symptoms. For a subacute diagnosis, symptoms must be present for 4 to 12 weeks. These symptoms may or may not respond to standard remedies or store-bought therapeutics.
Recurrent acute sinus inflammation/infections are serious and tend to redevelop several times a year. Anyone experiencing nasal congestion with or without additional sinus infection symptoms should consider seeing an ENT or Sinus specialist to learn treatment options for recurrent acute sinusitis. The threshold for diagnosis requires symptoms to last 7 days or longer, per episode.
Chronic sinus inflammation/infections are also known as sinusitis. The condition is diagnosed when symptoms persist longer than 10-12 weeks. Chronic sinusitis is also indicated in cases where symptoms linger after 12 weeks before resolving only to recur several days to weeks later.
Below are some common symptoms that occur with sinusitis:
- Headaches or head pain
- Postnasal drip
- Sore throat
- Sleep apnea
- Mouth breathing
- Difficulty swallowing
- Greenish, yellowish, or brown-tinged mucus
- Persistent coughing
- Difficulty sleeping
- Trouble eating
- Diminished taste or smell
- Facial pain or tenderness, especially surrounding the nose, eyes, and cheeks
Because nasal congestion is common with all types of sinus inflammation/infections, and with many other medical conditions, a medical evaluation from an ENT or nose & sinus specialist is necessary. Once the type of inflammation or congestion trigger is diagnosed, proper treatment can be administered to improve symptoms.
The following medical concerns contribute to nasal congestion as well.
Deviated septum develops when the cartilage and bone inside the nose that separates the nostrils becomes crooked or deformed. The most common causes of a deviated septum are nose injuries and genetics.
Enlarged or hypertrophied turbinates develop when any of the three sets of bony shelves inside the nose become irritated, inflamed, or infected. Facial pain and discomfort are also present.
Allergies cause swelling and inflammation of the airways and nasal passages when exposed to irritants. Normally, these symptoms dissipate once the irritating substance is no longer present, or when treated with allergy meds like antihistamines. Sometimes, additional medical intervention is necessary to prevent chronic allergy symptoms and nasal congestion.
Nasal polyps are very common. Many people have small polyps or swollen lumps inside of their noses and remain unaware until they swell and become large enough to restrict or block airflow. Sometimes nasal polyps shrink on their own, but when congestion is chronic, they become inflamed and infected, and can prevent airflow through the affected nostril.
Treatment for Nasal Congestion and Sinusitis
Conventional treatments range from self-care to medications and surgery. Because people experience nasal congestion and sinusitis differently and develop it from varying causes, it’s necessary to see an ENT doctor or nose and sinus specialist for a diagnosis.
The Southern Sinus Institute of Southern California, headed by world-renowned ENT and nose and sinus specialist, Dr. Alen N. Cohen, MD, FACS, FARS, routinely treats patients suffering from nasal congestion, allergies, sinus infections, and other issues affecting their ability to breathe and function normally.
In addition to providing standard medical treatments for nasal congestion and sinusitis, Dr. Cohen also offers minimally invasive procedures, such as balloon sinuplasty, endoscopic sinus and image-guided endoscopic sinus surgeries, in-office polypectomy, and septoplasty.
To learn treatment options for nasal congestion, sinusitis, allergies, and nasal abnormalities, or for a complete evaluation, contact Dr. Alen Cohen at the Southern California Sinus Institute today!