Also indexed as: Nasal Congestion, Rhinitis, Stuffy Nose
Breathe freely again by clearing blocked passageways and easing
sinus pressure. According to research or other evidence, the following self-care steps may
help you find some relief and fight off infection:
- Wipe out irritants
- Keep your environment free of irritants and allergens that can
trigger sinus congestion, such as dust, mold, smoke, chemical fumes, and animal dander
- Steam clean with aromatic oils
- Use steam inhalation with eucalyptus oil or products containing
menthol to reduce nasal stuffiness
- Try nasal irrigation
- Prepare a warm, salt-water solution in a special ceramic pot known
as a “neti lota” pot and pour it through your nose to relieve your sinuses
- Uncover food allergies
- Work with a knowledgeable practitioner to find out if food
allergens may contribute to your sinus congestion
- Get a checkup
- Visit your healthcare provider to find out if your sinus
congestion may be caused by an infection, inhalant allergy, or other treatable medical
These recommendations are not comprehensive and are not intended to replace
the advice of your doctor or pharmacist. Continue reading the full sinus congestion article
for more in-depth, fully-referenced information on medicines, vitamins, herbs, and dietary and
lifestyle changes that may be helpful.
About sinus congestion
Sinus congestion (also called nasal congestion or rhinitis) involves blockage of one or
more of the four pairs of sinus passageways in the skull.
The blockage may result from inflammation and swelling of the nasal tissues, obstruction by
one of the small bones of the nose (deviated septum), or from secretion of mucus. It may be
acute or chronic. Acute sinus congestion is most often caused by the common cold. Sinus congestion caused by the common
cold is not discussed here. Chronic sinus congestion often results from environmental
irritants such as tobacco smoke, food allergens, inhaled allergens, or foreign bodies in the nose.
Sinus congestion leads to impaired flow of fluids in the sinuses, which predisposes people
to bacterial infections that can cause sinusitis. At least two serious disorders have
been associated with chronic nasal congestion: chronic lymphocytic leukemia and HIV.1 2 For this reason, chronic
nasal congestion lasting three months or more should be evaluated by a medical
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What are the symptoms?
Sinus congestion typically causes symptoms of pressure, tenderness, or pain in the area
above the eyebrows (frontal sinus) and above the upper, side teeth (maxillary sinus). Other
symptoms include nasal stuffiness sometimes accompanied by a thick yellow or green discharge,
postnasal drip, bad breath, and an irritating dry cough.
Over the counter products may help to reduce the symptoms associated with sinus congestion.
Analgesics, such as aspirin (Bayer, Ecotrin,
Bufferin), ibuprofen (Motrin IB, Advil), and
acetaminophen (Tylenol), reduce pain due to
sinus pressure. Topical nasal decongestants such asoxymetazoline (Afrin) and phenylephrine
(Neo-Synephrine) may provide relief from nasal congestion, but they should only be used for a
few days. The oral decongestant
pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) may help relieve nasal congestion, while antihistamines such as
diphenhydramine (Benadryl), brompheniramine (Dimetapp), loratadine (Claritin, Alavert), and chlorpheniramine (Chlor-Trimeton) might help dry
excess mucous. Guaifenesin (Robitussin,
Mucinex) is an expectorant used to remove mucous in the sinuses, lungs, and ears.
Prescription strength pain relievers, such
as ibuprofen (Motrin), naproxen (Naprosyn),
and acetaminophen with codeine (Tylenol with Codeine), may be prescribed.
Oral antibiotics, such as amoxicillin/clavulanate (Augmentin), loracarbef (Lorabid), azithromycin (Zmax), and cefprozil (Cefzil), are generally prescribed for sinus
infection. Corticosteroid nasal sprays, such
as flunisolide (Nasarel), fluticasone (Flonase), mometasone (Nasonex), budesonide (Rhinocort
Aqua), or triamcinolone (Nasacort AQ), may also be used to reduce inflammation.
Surgery may be used to unblock the sinuses and drain thick secretions if drug therapy is
ineffective or if structural abnormalities are involved.
Dietary changes that may be helpful
Food allergy appears to play an important
role in many cases of rhinitis, which is related to sinus congestion. In a study of children
under one year of age with allergic rhinitis and/or asthma, 91% had a significant improvement in symptoms
while following an allergy-elimination diet.3 In the experience of one group of
doctors, food allergy was the most common cause of chronic rhinitis.4 Two other
researchers have found food allergy to be a contributing factor to allergic rhinitis in
25%5 and 39%6 of cases, respectively. Food allergies are best identified
by means of an allergy-elimination diet, which should be supervised by a doctor.
Lifestyle changes that may be helpful
The most common cause of nasal congestion is
allergy to inhalants, such as pollen, molds, dust mites, trees, or animal dander. Exposure
to various chemicals in the home or workplace may also contribute to allergic rhinitis. Indoor
and outdoor air pollution may also be a factor in susceptible people. Smoking and secondhand
exposure to tobacco smoke have been implicated in chronic nasal congestion7 and the
prevalence of chronic rhinitis among men has been shown to increase with increasing cigarette
consumption.8 People exposed to chlorine, such as lifeguards and swimmers, may also
be at risk of developing nasal congestion.9
Careful evaluation by an allergist or other healthcare professional may help identify
factors contributing to nasal congestion. Sometimes strict avoidance of the triggering agents
(e.g., thoroughly vacuuming house dust or using dust covers on the mattresses) may provide
relief. Where complete avoidance of irritants is not possible, desensitization techniques
(immunotherapy [allergy shots]) may be helpful.
Nasal irrigation with warm water or saline may be helpful for reducing symptoms of sinus
congestion, although steam inhalations appear to be less useful. In a study of people
suffering from the common cold, steam
inhalation did not improve sinus congestion any better than placebo.10 In a similar
controlled study, irrigation of the nasal passages with heated water or saline, decreased
nasal secretions, although inhalation of water vapor did not.11
Herbs that may be helpful
Eucalyptus oil is often used in a steam
inhalation to help clear nasal and sinus congestion. Eucalyptus oil is said to function in a
fashion similar to that of menthol by acting
on receptors in the nasal mucous membranes, leading to a reduction in the symptoms of nasal
Are there any side effects or interactions?
Refer to the individual herb for information about any side effects or interactions.
Holistic approaches that may be helpful
Acupuncture may be useful for decreasing
chronic sinus congestion. In one clinical study, most participants experienced at least
temporary relief after acupuncture needles were inserted alongside the nose.13
1. Amir R, Dowdy YG, Goldberg AN. Chronic rhinitis: a manifestation of
chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Am J Otolaryngol 1999;20:328–31.
2. Lin RY, Lazarus TS. Asthma and related atopic disorders in outpatients
attending an urban HIV clinic. Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol 1995;74:510–5.
3. Ogle KA, Bullock JD. Children with allergic rhinitis and/or bronchial
asthma treated with elimination diet: a five-year follow-up. Ann Allergy
4. Rowe AH, Rowe A Jr. Perennial nasal allergy due to food sensitization.
J Asthma Res 1965;3:141–54.
5. Derlacki EL. Food sensitization as a cause of perennial nasal allergy.
Ann Allergy 1955;13:682–9.
6. Davison HM. The role of food sensitivity in nasal allergy. Ann
7. Benninger, MS. The impact of cigarette smoking and environmental
tobacco smoke on nasal and sinus disease: a review of the literature. Am J Rhinol
8. Annesi-Maesano I, Oryszczyn MP, Neukirch F, Kauffmann F. Relationship
of upper airway disease to tobacco smoking and allergic markers: a cohort study of men
followed up for 5 years. Int Arch Allergy Immunol 1997;114:193–201.
9. Leroyer C, Malo JL, Girard D, et al. Chronic rhinitis in workers at
risk of reactive airways dysfunction syndrome due to exposure to chlorine. Occup Environ
10. Macknin ML, Mathew S, Medendorp SV. Effect of inhaling heated vapor
on symptoms of the common cold. JAMA 1990;264:989–91.
11. Georgitis JW. Nasal hyperthermia and simple irrigation for perennial
rhinitis. Changes in inflammatory mediators. Chest 1994;106:1487–92.
12. Schulz V, Hansel R, Tyler VE. Rational Phytotherapy, 3rd ed.
Berlin: Springer Verlag, 1998, 146–7.
13. Hu Y, Liu J. 200 cases of chronic rhinitis treated by acupuncture at
nei ying xiang. J Tradit Chin Med 1997;17:53–4.