You’ve hardly been able to breathe through both nostrils for over a week. You’re not coughing or sneezing, and you don’t feel feverish. It’s not the cold, and it’s not the flu. So why are you so congested?
A stuffy nose is a symptom, not a condition in itself. When your nose is stuffed—and it’s not the common cold—it’s usually one of three things, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery Foundation.
1. Allergies(a.k.a., rhinitis)
Anyone who has had seasonal allergies knows the symptoms of allergic rhinitis well: congestion, sneezing, runny nose, and itchy nose.
Congestion and other symptoms of rhinitis are the result of your immune system overreacting to particles in your environment. The most common allergy triggers include plant pollen, pet dander, dust mites, mold, and the venom of insects (like mosquitoes or ants).
When faced with an allergy trigger, your blood vessels expand, resulting in redness and extra fluid in the nose. Learn lifestyle tips to soothe seasonal allergies here.
2. Non-allergic rhinitis
Rhinitis is often used to describe allergies, but that is only one type of rhinitis—which actually just refers to a state of inflammation of the mucous membrane inside the nose. The mucous membrane is the moist tissue that lines the inside of the nose and your internal organs.
If it’s not caused by allergies, rhinitis may be in response to certain medications, hormonal changes, certain foods or drinks, or even weather changes.
3. Sinus infections (a.k.a., sinusitis)
The sinuses are small and hollow cavities located throughout the front of the face, especially around the nose (maxillary sinuses), eyes (ethmoid sinuses), and forehead (frontal sinuses). They serve several functions, like making your head lighter, moisturizing the nose, and providing tone to your voice.
But sinuses can become infected as well. Exposure to bacteria or viruses may infect the sinuses, and the inflammatory response results in a buildup of fluid (mucus) in the sinus cavity.
Sinusitis results in symptoms like congestion, pressure in the face, and loss of smell. (Many people believe that sinus infections cause green snot, but sinusitis isn’t the only cause of a green-hued drip.)
Sinus infections can be acute (lasting fewer than four weeks) or chronic (lasting longer than 12 weeks). Chronic sinusitis might be caused by something other than a viral infection, and your doctor may need to investigate to see what is causing the inflammation.
Congestion is annoying, but relatively harmless. However, if your nose remains plugged for days—or weeks—it’s worth heading to your doctor to identify the cause and find a remedy.