Why Do I Have a Runny Nose?

Woman with a runny nose. Marcela Barsse/E+/Getty Images

Runny noses can be caused by many things. Allergies, colds, even cold weather can cause your nose to "run". Typically if you get a respiratory infection, you will have a combination of congestion (or stuffy nose) and drainage (runny nose) at varying points throughout your illness. But do you know why this happens? And what you can do about it?

What Happens

Any time there is an increase in mucus production, you can have a runny nose or post nasal drip (mucus draining down the back of your throat).

The increase in mucus may be caused by germs, allergens or even overuse of certain types of medications.

Common causes of congestion and runny nose include:

Most runny noses and congestion goes away without treatment in about a week. If yours lasts longer than that, contact your health care provider to determine if you need to be seen.

What You Can Do

If your runny nose or nasal drainage is caused by allergies, taking an antihistamine or other allergy medication could significantly improve your symptoms. However, these medications are rarely helpful for drainage caused by illness or other factors.

For runny nose caused by illness, you can try:

  • Running a humidifier - the extra moisture in the air may help thin the mucus, allowing it to drain more easily and helping you breathe better
  • Breathe in steamy air 2-4 times/day - do not breathe in hot steam. Rather, sit in the bathroom with the hot water running and breathe in the steamy air for 10-15 minutes.
  • Rinse your sinuses. Using a neti pot, sinus rinse or saline spray, rinsing the mucus out of your sinuses with a saline solution can significantly decrease the amount of mucus you are dealing with.

If you take over the counter medications to get relief from your runny nose or other cold symptoms, pay attention to the active ingredients. There are a lot of options out there and it is very easy to accidentally take too much of an ingredient because you didn't realize it was in more than one of your medications. To make it easier and reduce the chances that you are taking medications you don't need or you are getting too much of something, read about the MedItRight app and how it could help you.

When to See a Doctor

Most of the time, runny noses aren't something to rush to the doctor for. They usually go away on their own within about a week and despite some minor annoyance, aren't often serious enough to cause alarm.

However, there are a few occasions when a stuffy or runny nose might warrant a visit or call to your health care provider.

  • If you have congestion with swelling in parts of the face and blurred vision
  • Sore throat and white or yellow patches in the throat
  • Runny nose or nasal discharge after a head injury
  • Nasal discharge that has a bad smell or is a color other than white or yellow
  • Symptoms that last longer than 3 weeks
  • Runny nose or congestion with a fever
  • A child has drainage from only one side of the nose and could have stuck something into the nostril


"Stuffy or Runny Nose - Adult". MedlinePlus 12 Jan 15. US National Library of Medicine. Department of Health and Human Services. National Institutes of Health. 29 Jan 15.

"Stuffy or Runny Nose - Child". MedlinePlus 12 Jan 15. US National Library of Medicine. Department of Health and Human Services. National Institutes of Health. 29 Jan 15.

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