Nasal congestion is the swelling of the nasal passages. Symptoms include difficulty breathing, sinus pressure, and fevers. Caused mostly by allergies or common colds, most congestion is minor and can be treated at home. However, if the symptoms escalate, certain doctors can help patients find relief.
What is nasal congestion?
Nasal congestion occurs when the sinus cavities become inflamed and swollen. Breathing through the nose becomes difficult and can be blocked entirely. Often the result of a sinus infection, congestion is identified by sinus pain, mucus build-up, and a stuffy or runny nose. Most nasal congestion can be treated with home remedies and over the counter medication. Chronic congestion will likely need antibiotics.
Causes of congestion
Most congestion is caused by sinus infections such as the common cold and the flu. Symptoms typically last 5-7 days. Congestion lasting more than a week is often a sign of an underlying health issue. Chronic congestion can be caused by allergies, both environmental and food, sinusitis or rhinitis, nasal polyps, chemical exposure, environmental exposure, or a deviated septum. Certain medications can also cause congestion. Hormone fluctuations during the first trimester of pregnancy can also cause these symptoms.
Home remedies are the most popular method to treat congestion. Humidifiers and vaporizers put moisture back in the air and can soothe irritated and dry nasal passages. Drinking fluids, hot or cold, will thin out mucus. A saline spray will prevent nasal passages from becoming too dry. Steam from long showers can decrease swelling and open the nasal passages. Elevating the head up on a pillow will make breathing easier. Placing a warm towel across the nose can decrease pressure and open the sinuses.
Decongestants and antihistamines are both effective in treating congestion. These medications work by reducing swelling, thinning mucus, and relieving overall sinus pressure. Oral decongestants should not be taken for more than a week. Using a nasal spray for more than 3 days can have the reverse effect and make congestion worse. Antihistamines control the body’s reaction to allergens. Certain antihistamines are designed for long-term use.
When to go to the doctor
Congestion is more of a nuisance than anything else. Most congestion is minor and can be treated at home. There are, however, a handful of symptoms that should be brought to the attention of a medical professional. The patient should seek medical attention if experiencing:
- difficulty breathing
- a high fever lasting more than a few days
- nasal discharge that is abnormal in color
- severe sinus pain
- symptoms that have spread to the throat
- the condition has lasted more than 7 days
Additionally, if a child is under 2 years of age and experiencing prolonged congestion, a doctor should always be consulted.
What type of doctor to choose
Primary care physicians, internists, and general practitioners are all equipped to treat nasal congestion. If the congestion becomes severe, a patient will be referred to an ear nose and throat (ENT) specialist. The ENT specialist is also called an otolaryngologist. Nurse practitioners and physician assistants are also able to diagnose and write prescriptions for most sinus problems. Pediatricians can diagnose and treat children.
Home vs the doctor
Most congestion is a minor and does not require medical intervention. If symptoms persist for more than a week or become more severe, including high fever, abnormal discharge, or severe pain, the patient should see a medical professional. Patients with chronic nasal congestion should consult an ENT specialist to find treatment options and relief.