Congestion 101: causes, symptoms and treatment options

Your crash course in what causes congestion and what might bring relief.

You were feeling fine yesterday. But today? Today all you can think about is how congested you feelWaking up to a stuffy or runny nose is common, but it can be difficult to trace your congestion back to a causeNasal congestion comes in many forms, and each different trigger should be treated differently. Here are some of the common causes. 


Common symptoms: congestion, sneezing, itchy and watering eyes, shortness of breath, itchy rashes, stomach pain and swollen lips, tongue, eyes or face. 

Food and foreign substances, such as pet dander and bug bites, can trigger allergies. In response, the body produces antibodies that target the allergens as harmful. In response to allergens, the immune system can inflame your skin, sinuses, airways and digestive system. 

Allergies are a common cause of congestion. For mild allergic reactions, antihistamines can help reduce symptoms of congestion. You can also get an allergy panel to test for the causes of allergic reactions and learn which allergens to avoid. 

Serious allergic reactions include trouble speaking and swallowing, throat tightness, difficulty breathing, or fast pulse and require immediate medical attention. 


Common symptoms: congestion, runny or stuffy nose, sore throat, cough, slight body aches or mild headache, sneezing and low-grade fever. 

Many viruses cause the common cold, a viral infection of the nose and throat. When mucus from your nose thickens and becomes yellow or green, your cold has run its course. Colds aren’t serious, but they aren’t much fun. 

Fortunately, there are some over-the-counter cold medicines that can help reduce your discomfort. For overall relief, a multi-symptom cold medicine can help ease coughing, decongest your nose and help reduce aches. 


Common symptoms: congestion, frequent nose bleeds, trouble breathing, sinus infections, difficulty sleeping, snoring, facial pressure and headaches. 

The cartilage that separates the two nostrils can grow crooked or uneven, making one side narrower than the other. This is called a deviated septum. A deviated septum sometimes prevents the free flow of air through your nose, which can result in feeling stuffy. 

If you think you have a deviated septum, you should consult with your doctor for a diagnosis. Though there are no at-home or medicinal remedies for a deviated septum your healthcare provider can offer other solutions such as a splint or surgery. 


Common symptoms: congestion, fever/feverish chills, coughing, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches, fatigue and vomiting. 

Flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by a range of influenza viruses. Flu can cause mild to severe illness. The yearly flu vaccine is the best preventative measure you can take to help avoid infection. 

Antivirals are the best treatment option for the flu. Flu can be serious, particularly for people at higher risk for severe flu complications such as young children, adults 65 years of age and older, pregnant women, and people with certain medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes and heart disease. If you are in an at-risk group or experience severe flu symptoms, contact your healthcare provider immediately. 


Common symptoms: congestion, runny nose, itchy eyes, sneezing, fatigue and sinus pressure. 

Hay fever, also known as allergic rhinitis, is caused by an allergic reaction to environmental allergens. These allergens can come from inside or outside the home, with everything from pollen and dust mites to the skin, saliva or fur of cats or dogs being a potential triggerAllergy medications can help provide relief. If your child is experiencing symptoms of allergic rhinitis, there are kid-friendly over-the-counter antihistaminesIf symptoms continue or worsen, consult your doctor. 


Common symptoms: congestion, runny nose, postnasal drip, decreased or absent sense of smell and taste, facial pains or headaches, pain in the upper teeth, pressure in the forehead or face, snoring and frequent nosebleeds.  

Nasal polyps are an overgrowth of tissue within the sinuses that can block the flow of mucus and air. These painless, noncancerous growths result from chronic inflammation and are common in people who have asthma, recurring infections, allergies and some immune disorders. 

Small nasal polyps are unlikely to cause symptoms. Larger ones or groups of polyps can block the nasal passages and lead to breathing problems, loss of sense of smell and recurring nasal infections. If you experience these symptoms for over 10 days, you should see your doctor. If you experience trouble breathing, a sudden worsening of symptoms, changes in your vision or severe headache with a high fever, seek immediate medical attention. Polyps require either prescription medications to shrink or surgery to eliminate them. Unfortunately, they can be a recurring problem, even after treatment.  


Common symptoms: congestion, headache and runny nose. 

Sinus infections, or sinusitis, is inflammation of the sinuses which can cause a congested feeling in the nasal cavities. Sinus infections are often mistaken for bad colds since they share many symptomsMolds and viruses can sometimes cause sinusitis, but bacterial infections are the most common cause, so sinus infections typically require treatment with antibiotics 

Acute sinus infections last between 3 to 8 weeks. Treatment options include antibiotics, antihistamines, nasal decongestants, saline washes and surgery. Acute sinus infections that last longer than 8 weeks may be chronic sinus infections. If your symptoms continue for over 3 weeks or suddenly worsen, you should contact your doctor for diagnosis and treatment. 

If you have congestion, just remember to pay attention to your other symptoms. These are the key to finding the potential source of your congestion and may help guide you to the right treatments. And as always, if you aren’t sure what is causing your congestion or how to respond, give your doctor a call.