How to get rid of a blocked nose – a doctor’s best tips

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A blocked nose is one of the most common symptoms of a cold or allergy. Livi GP Dr Nikki Ramskill shares her advice on what really works to relieve one

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Having a stuffy or blocked nose isn’t just annoying – it also makes it harder to breathe easily and affects our sleep quality. So what’s the best way to clear the congestion, according to a doctor?

‘There are a few effective blocked nose remedies you can try at home,’ says Dr Ramskill, GP at Livi. ‘If they don’t give you relief, the next step would be to speak to a pharmacist or doctor about treatment options.’

What causes a blocked nose?

Although it seems like your nose is bunged up, the feeling is usually caused by swelling inside the nasal lining, rather than mucus.

‘Every day, we breathe in up to 15,000 litres of air, which is full of invisible dust, pollen and viruses. Luckily, the immune system is good at quickly getting rid of them,’ explains Dr Ramskill.

‘When it detects an unwanted visitor in the nose, the blood vessels swell, enabling white cells to come and tackle the problem. But the swelling can also block your nose.’

The most common causes of a blocked nose are:

  • Nasal allergies, most commonly related to dust mites, pollen or animal fur
  • A cold
  • Flu
  • Coronavirus (Covid-19)

Sometimes, a cold or allergy can develop into an inflammation of your sinuses called sinusitis. This is usually accompanied by pain in your face, a loss of smell, and green or yellow mucus.

Occasionally, a chronically blocked nose is caused by the shape of your nose. This can be genetic or caused by an injury.

How long does a blocked nose last?

The cause of your stuffy nose affects how long your symptoms last.

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‘Generally, a blocked nose from a virus doesn’t last that long. If it sticks around for more than 10 days, there may be something else going on,’ says Dr Ramskill.

‘If you’re worried or bothered by your symptoms, speak to a doctor or pharmacist. In the meantime, there are things you can do at home for relief.’

How can I get rid of a blocked nose?

Here are 8 doctor’s tips on how to get rid of a blocked nose.

1. Be gentle when you blow your nose

‘When you feel like there’s a blockage in your nose, the temptation is to reach for the tissues and try to clear it quickly,’ Dr Ramskill says, ‘But blowing too hard or too often could cause bleeding or an infection in the sinuses, which will only make things worse.’ Blowing your nose too much can also contribute to the swelling that may be making your nose feel blocked in the first place.

The best way to clear any mucus is to blow your nose gently one nostril at a time.

2. Aim to drink 6-8 glasses of water a day

Staying hydrated can thin out mucus and will also help your body to fight an infection if there is one.

‘Some people might need to drink more or less than the recommended amount, but the important thing is to make sure you don’t feel thirsty,’ says Dr Ramskill.

3. Hold a warm flannel to your cheeks

‘Holding a warm compress to your cheeks and face can ease the pressure in your sinuses,’ explains Dr Ramskill. ‘You can do this as often as you need.’

You can make a warm compress at home by soaking a flannel or cloth in warm water and ringing it out. The water should be hot but not scalding, like a bath.

4. Dial-up the humidity

‘If you've got a sore, crusty nose, really dry air will make it worse,’ says Dr Ramskill. ‘Making the room more humid can be helpful, especially at night.’

The easiest way to do this is to use a humidifier, but you can add moisture to the air by boiling some water in a pan for 10 minutes or running a hot shower.

5. Try a nasal rinse with warm salty water

‘Nasal douching is helpful if you have thick mucus or allergies,’ says Dr Ramskill. ‘Doing this around 5 times a day helps clear the sinuses and soothe inflammation.’

You can make your own nasal rinse with salty water, or buy a saline rinse from a pharmacist or get a prescription from a doctor.

6. Use menthol ointment or oil

‘Essential oils like menthol don’t unblock the nose, but the cooling sensation helps you feel like you’re breathing more easily,’ explains Dr Ramskill.

You can dissolve a few drops of menthol, eucalyptus or camphor oil in a bath or a humidifier, or try a plug-in vapouriser. Another option is a vapour rub, which is an ointment you apply to your chest.

7. Ask a pharmacist about treatment options

‘If your blocked nose is really annoying or stubborn, there are over-the-counter treatments. Although these are readily available, speak to a pharmacist first to decide which one is best for you,’ says Dr Ramskill.

The following treatments are available as nasal sprays or tablets:

Decongestants These are for short-term relief only, and usually help colds.

Steroids These are most helpful for allergies or relieving an ongoing blocked nose.

Antihistamines These can help ease allergy symptoms but some can cause drowsiness.

‘It’s best to try decongestants first, but they can actually make things worse if you use them for more than a week,’ says Dr Ramskill. ‘Steroid sprays are the next option and are fine for long-term use.’

8. Speak to a doctor if symptoms don’t improve after 10 days

‘A doctor will talk to you about your symptoms to rule out an underlying condition,’ says Dr Ramskill. ‘Depending on what they find, they might issue a prescription or refer you to an ear, nose and throat specialist or an allergy specialist.’

What helps a blocked nose at night?

Blocked noses often get worse at night and can make it hard to sleep. Try the following remedies before bed:

  • Try drinking hot lemon and honey, or ginger tea
  • Rinse your nose
  • Take ibuprofen or paracetamol
  • Apply vapour rub or use a plug-in vapouriser

‘Raising your head on a pillow throughout the night will help any mucus to drain away and make it easier to breathe,’ says Dr Ramskill.

What can help a child or baby with a blocked nose?

‘Children and babies can really suffer with blocked noses, as their nostrils are so much smaller than ours,’ Dr Ramskill explains. ‘Apart from giving them ibuprofen or paracetamol, all the tips for sleeping can also be used for children.’

For babies, rather than raise their head on a pillow, you can try raising the cot at one end. ‘Put vapour rub on a baby’s feet rather than their chests, so it doesn’t become overpowering. Babies can’t blow their noses, but you can get a device that gently sucks out the mucus for them.’

When should I see a doctor about my blocked nose?

If you’re worried about your symptoms, suspect you might have Covid-19 or your blocked nose has lasted more than 10 days, speak to a doctor.

Although a stuffy nose is usually nothing serious, there are some signs to look out for:

  • Your nose is only blocked on one side (and always the same side)
  • You have a bleeding or crusting nose that keeps coming back
  • Watery liquid is dripping from your nose
  • Your eyes look swollen or feel painful
  • Your sight is affected

‘Very rarely, a blocked nose can be due to a rare form of cancer or a recent injury to the head or spine. It’s better to catch these things early, so speak to a doctor straight away if you’re worried,’ Dr Ramskill says.

This article has been medically reviewed by Livi GP Dr Nikki Ramskill.

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