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How do you cure a stuffy nose? These are the common causes and treatments

It could be a winter cold or a chronic condition like allergies that's blocking up those sinuses.
Stuffy noses are annoying and uncomfortable, but do they ever mean anything serious?
Stuffy noses are annoying and uncomfortable, but do they ever mean anything serious? Getty Images

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By Kerry Breen

The onslaught of winter and cold weather means one constant thing: stuffy noses.

Every year, millions of people are affected by the irritating symptom. Typically, a stuffy nose is harmless and clears up within a few days, but that time period can be uncomfortable.

What really causes a stuffy nose and can anything cure it? These are some of the reasons and when there are signs that something more serious is happening.

Common causes of the "stuffy nose"

The causes of a stuffy nose can have many different roots, some that might require treatment and some that are just part of a person's anatomy, according to Dr. Anthony Del Signore, the director of rhinology and endoscopic skull base surgery at Mount Sinai Downtown.

A cold or flu might bring a sinus infection, particles in the air can trigger allergies and some people are just more prone to sinus problem.

Most of the time, what people refer to as a stuffy nose is caused by an upper respiratory virus, Dr. Erich P. Voigt, a clinical associate professor of otolaryngology at NYU Langone Health told TODAY.

"I'm sure every person around has had a cold," he said. "The most common cause of a stuffed nose for a short period of time is a cold virus. With cold viruses, it's usually self-limited, so it'll last maybe three to five days."

In most cases, a stuffy nose should clear up within a few days. Justin Paget / Getty Images

The second most common cause of a congested nose is allergies, which can have longer-term effects and cause the lining in the nose becomes inflamed, creating the congestion, according to Del Signore.

"If it's a year-round problem, where it's stuffy all the time, it's typically a dust or mold allergy that gives people a chronically stuffy nose," said Voigt.

When it's more seasonal or environmental, specific pollens or other seasonal conditions may trigger a stuffy nose and other allergy symptoms.

Less commonly, physical afflictions like a deviated septum or growths like nasal polyps or adenoids can create a problem. These are more long-lasting and typically require more thorough treatment than allergies or the common cold.

Is there a cure for a stuffy nose?

While most colds and viruses go away without any treatment, a decongestant or other over-the-counter medication, like saline nasal spray, can reduce and treat symptoms. Voigt recommends steam and staying hydrated to keep mucus moving, while Del Signore recommends options like nasal rinses and Neti-Pots.

Over-the-counter nasal decongestant sprays, which often contain pseudoephedrine or phenylephrine, should only be used in "emergency situations" and for no more than three days, according to Voigt.

Nasal sprays are effective but powerful. Getty Images

"After a few days, the sprays cause rebound swelling in the nose," he said. "You end up more swollen than when you started. And they also have an addiction potential that people keep spraying more and more to try to get it to work and it stops working and the nose will swell completely shut."

Oral decongestants don't cause such extreme side effects, but are "very strong medicines" that can interact with other medications or conditions. It's important to read the fine print on the labels, Voigt said.

If a stuffy nose persists for several weeks, it might be time to seek medical treatment.

"If a month goes by and you're all stuffy and it's not going away, then you may want to see a doctor to find out the cause," said Voigt.

Allergy testing can help determine individual triggers that could contributing to a stuffy nose and a physical exam can help, too.

"A general doctor can take a look at the front of the nose," Voigt said. "If it looks stuffy from allergic-looking swelling, they can try you on some allergy medicine."

Prescription allergy medications include antihistamines or nasal steroid sprays.

However, if a stuffy nose persists after tests and medications, or if it gets worse, Voigt recommends seeing an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist.

"We have little telescopes or flexible fiber-optics that we can actually put in the nose and go all the way to the back of the nose, looking at the entire nasal cavity," he said. "We would see if there was a deviated septum or nasal polyps or a growth."

A doctor can make sure that a stuffy nose isn't anything worse. Paul Bradbury / Getty Images

Options to relieve those conditions include a surgery called a septoplasty, which corrects a deviated septum, or a procedure to reduce turbinates, which are the tissues that swell and cause most stuffy noses.

"We have a procedure to shrink them, to make them smaller, so that air can go through the nose better," Voigt said.

About 500,000 nasal-septal surgeries are performed each year in the United States.

"Those are typically people who have already tried allergy medicines, have already tried conservative treatments, and still lead to surgery," he said.

When a stuffy nose means something serious

In rare cases, a stuffy nose can be the sign of another condition.

"If it's blocked on one side, if there's bleeding or pain, then that can be the sign of a serious condition like a growth or a mass or a tumor," he said. "Those people should see an ENT specialist sooner than later."

Progressive and persistent symptoms are worth checking out, according to a doctor. Getty Images

However, don't panic after just a few days with an unevenly stuffed nose. Voigt said that the biggest signs of a potentially severe condition are "persistent and progressive" symptoms, which happens over many weeks or months.

"If that's been something that's been getting worse, that means something's growing in there," he said. "If it's persisting, progressing and getting worse, that's got to be looked at."