A Look at Congestion

Woman wiping her nose
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Stuffy nose

Medical Specialties:

Allergy/immunology, Family practice, Pediatrics, Internal medicine

Clinical Definition:

Congestion is an excessive accumulation of bodily fluids, such as mucus or blood, in an organ, vessel or body part. It may develop in a part of the body due to obstruction in normal fluid movement or an increased influx of fluid. The term most commonly refers to nasal congestion, but can also refer to congestion in veins and in the lungs.

In Our Own Words:

Congestion is an abnormal amount of fluid in a part of the body. The term congestion usually refers to swelling and occasionally excess mucus in the nose and sinuses. It can also refer to congestion in the veins (i.e., venous congestion), causing swelling in the legs, or that of congestive heart failure with fluid buildup in the lungs and other areas.

Common causes of nasal congestion include inflammation of the nasal passages due to allergies and the common cold.

More Information About the Common Cold

The common cold, or acute viral rhinitis, is a common cause of nasal congestion. Children who are younger than 5 can experience between 6 and 12 colds a year. About 30 to 40 percent of colds are are caused by rhinoviruses. Other viral causes of cold include adenoviruses, coronaviruses, enteroviruses, respiratory syncytial virus and the influenza and parainfluenza viruses.

In addition to nasal congestion, here are some other symptoms of acute viral rhinitis:

  • clear mucus discharge (rhinorrhea)
  • sore throat
  • fever (especially in children)
  • sore throat
  • sneezing
  • cough

Of note, children with a cold are much more likely to develop fever than are adults with a cold, and this fever can rise as high to 105 degrees without indicating superinfection, or wider infection.

On physical examination, a person with a cold may have a reddened and inflamed nose, throat and tympanic membranes (which are located in the ear).

A cold usually lasts anywhere from 7 to 10 days. After a couple of days with infection, your body mounts a bigger immune response and an influx of neutrophils, a type of white blood cell, floods the epithelium or lining of the nose. Consequently, these epithelial cells shed, and the mucus discharge from the nose becomes more purulent (yellow) and thicker. Although purulent discharge is often a sign of bacterial infection, it can also occur because of viral infection, and unless this purulent discharge continues for more than a week or two, bacterial infection shouldn't be assumed.

Because the common cold is caused by a viral infection, antibiotics shouldn't be used to treat this illness. Unnecessary treatment with antibiotics increases multi-drug resistance among bacteria, a major problem worldwide. Treatment for acute viral sinusitis is usually symptomatic, or targeted at symptoms, and includes pain medications, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen (Tylenol). Acetaminophen is an antipyretic and also helps with fever.

Additionally, humidifiers also help with cough and congestion. Although some over-the-counter cough and cold preparations may help adults, they shouldn't be used in children.


American Academy of Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery. “Stuffy Nose.” Accessed February 2014.

Tortora G., Derrick B. “Principals of Anatomy and Physiology.” Wiley 2011. Accessed February 2014.

University of Maryland Medical Center. “Nasal Congestion.” Updated September 2013. Accessed February 2014.

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