Why Do We Get Congested?

Woman wiping her nose
Why do we get congested?. Eugenio Marongiu/Cultura/Getty Images

Congestion is a symptom of many illnesses. It can come in the form of a runny nose, stuffy nose, pressure in your sinuses or post nasal drip to name a few. It is not an illness in itself but a symptom of some other illness or a reaction to something in the environment.

We may get congested when we have a cold, allergies, upper respiratory infection, the flu and many other illnesses. But what exactly causes this excess mucus to build up in your head and creates such an uncomfortable feeling?

The Mechanics of Congestion

Most of the time when we get congested, it's due to the fact that the lining in our nasal passages has become swollen. This swelling leads to a feeling of being very congested even though there may not be a significant increase in the amount of mucus in your nose. The swelling occurs due to irritation from a virus, bacteria, allergen or other foreign substance.

Sometimes there is an increase in mucus production which occurs when our immune systems react to a perceived threat - whether it is a virus, bacteria, allergen or something else. Our immune systems start producing histamine, which triggers our bodies to go into protection mode. In the upper respiratory tract, mucus production increases in an attempt to expel the "invaders" and moisten the airways. Blood flow increases to the nasal lining and mucus increases, making you feel congested.

What Can You Do?

Congestion as a symptom of a viral illness is typically short-lived.

It lasts for a few days or maybe a week and resolves on it's own when the virus your body is fighting finally loses it's battle against your immune system.

There is no medication that will "cure" congestion but there are many over the counter products that can help relieve it temporarily. Antihistamines and decongestants can be taken to reduce the swelling and relieve the congested feeling.

Pain relievers may help with discomfort and nasal saline spray or sinus rinses can help wash the excess mucus out of your nasal passages and sinuses. Using a humidifier and drinking plenty of fluids may help as well.

If your congestion is caused by allergies, taking allergy medications or consulting an allergist about allergy shots may be helpful.

If you aren't sure what is causing your congestion, start here and see what the possibilities are:

This information should be used for educational purposes only and should not be used in place of seeking medical attention or the recommendations of your health care provider.

Sources:

"Nasal Congestion." MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia 2 Aug 11. National Library of Medicine. US Department of Health and Human Services. 24 Apr 14.

"Insight Into the Many Causes of Nasal Congestion." Stuffy Nose 2014. American Academy of Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery. 24 Apr 14.

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