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How to Get Rid of a Stuffy Nose

Now that a common decongestant has been deemed ineffective, here are seven other ways to ease nasal congestion


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The next time you have a stuffy nose, you should check the ingredients before you grab just any product in the drugstore.

Many over-the-counter cold and allergy medicines contain phenylephrine — a common decongestant that a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advisory committee recently concluded is ineffective when taken by mouth, although experts say that it’s still effective when used in a spray.

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Sometimes labeled PE on packaging, phenylephrine is found in more than 200 products, including Sudafed PE, Benadryl Allergy D Plus Sinus, and Vicks DayQuil Cold and Flu Relief.

Experts say they have long known that the drug doesn’t work, and they’re hopeful the FDA’s news will prompt people to try other remedies that actually relieve symptoms.

“It’s something we all knew and talked about a lot,” says H. James Wedner, a professor of medicine in the Division of Allergy and Immunology at Washington University School of Medicine. “Fortunately, there are plenty of options that are very effective.”  

Some treatments are specifically designed for congestion caused by allergies. Others work for all manner of stuffy noses. Here are seven remedies to try to help you breathe freely again:

1. Pseudoephedrine-based products

Studies show pseudoephedrine, an FDA-approved decongestant, is highly effective at clearing congestion caused by allergies, infections or the common cold. It works by narrowing the blood vessels in your nasal passages.

Medications that contain pseudoephedrine don’t require a prescription, but you do have to request them from the pharmacist and you’ll have to show your driver’s license to get them. The drug was moved behind the counter in 2006, and limits were placed on how much you can buy, because it can be used it to make illegal methamphetamine.

Although effective, pseudoephedrine may not be a good choice for people with cardiovascular issues because it can raise blood pressure, says Marc Feeley, an ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

If you have high blood pressure already or you have heart disease, you should talk to your doctor before taking it.

2. Oxymetazoline or phenylephrine nasal sprays (Vicks Sinex, Afrin, Neosynephrine)

There’s no question that nasal sprays with oxymetazoline or topical phenylephrine can bring instant relief if you’re congested, whether from allergies or a respiratory virus. A few squirts in each nostril, and within minutes, your nasal blood vessels will constrict and you will be able to breathe freely again.

The downside, doctors say, is that the sprays are potentially addictive and can actually make your congestion worse if you use them for more than a few days. That makes health care providers reluctant to recommend them.

“What happens is that patients get hooked,” Wedner says. “I tell my patients, you can use it for maybe two days and then throw it away.”

The National Library of Medicine says oxymetazoline sprays should be used no more than twice in 24 hours and for no more than three days.

3. Corticosteroid nasal sprays (Nasacort, Flonase, Rhinocort)

If your nose is more runny than stuffy and is accompanied by itchy eyes, chances are you have allergies. If that’s the case, corticosteroid nasal sprays are your best bet for relief, Wedner says. 

In fact, a 2017 meta-analysis of five randomized controlled trials published in the American Journal of Rhinology & Allergy shows the sprays are actually more effective than oral antihistamines for allergy-related nasal congestion.  

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Corticosteroid sprays are squirted directly into the nose to reduce inflammation and clear congestion. To get their maximum effect, you need to use them for a few days or weeks, Wedner says.

“If you use them every day [for allergies], they are wonderful,” Wedner says. “My patients love them.”

Corticosteroid sprays can also help with sinus infections, but they aren’t any better than a placebo for congestion caused by the common cold, according to a 2015 Cochrane review of three small studies. The study authors said more research is needed.

4. Antihistamines (Zyrtec, Allegra, Claritin, Benadryl)

Antihistamines are another option for nasal congestion caused by allergies. They work by blocking a chemical created by your body that causes swelling in the nasal passages.

Older antihistamines like Benadryl have been known to cause drowsiness, anxiety and confusion in older adults.  They have also been linked to a higher risk of falls and to dementia. So if you’re over age 65, experts recommend opting for a second-generation oral antihistamine like Zyrtec, Allegra or Claritin.  

Another option: an antihistamine nasal spray called Astepro (azelastine hydrochloride) that the FDA approved to go over the counter in 2021. It’s very effective against nasal symptoms from allergies, Wedner says.

Research shows oral antihistamines aren’t particularly effective against congestion caused by the common cold. 

5. Saline nasal sprays and rinses

There are many different types of products you can use to inject what is essentially saltwater into your nasal passages to get things flowing and add moisture. Some are sprays or mists that loosen debris and blockages. Others are rinses or wash systems designed to flush out mucus, pollen and other irritants.

Saline products are “very, very safe,” Feeley says, and studies show they are effective, whether your congestion is caused by allergies, a cold or something else. “The salt draws the fluid and mucus out of your nose to open it up,” Feeley says.

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For nasal irrigation, you can use a neti pot to pour a saline solution into one nasal cavity and let it flow out the other. Or you can squeeze the solution into your nose using a bulb syringe or a squeeze bottle.

Drugstores sell saline solution for nasal rinses as well as pre-filled squeeze bottle rinse kits that make things easy. Or you can make your own solution by mixing 2 cups of warm distilled or boiled water, a pinch of baking soda and one teaspoon of iodine-free salt.

To prevent infection, make sure you use distilled water or tap water that has been boiled for all nasal rinsing.

6. A steamy shower

Steam inhalation has been used for centuries to help with respiratory problems, including a clogged nose. It’s believed that the hot steam can help moisten nasal passages and loosen mucus, making it easier to breathe.

The research on steam’s effectiveness is mixed, with some studies showing no benefit while others show it improves congestion. If you want to try steam for your stuffiness, take a hot shower, Wedner suggests. “When you breathe through your nose, you get steam in there … and many times you’ll find it loosens up your secretions and you can get them out easier,” he says.   

Some providers recommend breathing in steam from a bowl of just-boiled water, but that can cause burns. A safer, albeit more expensive, option is a high-tech steam inhaler that emits a steady stream of temperature-controlled water vapor.

7. Chicken soup

Chicken soup, another age-old remedy backed by modern research, can help clear your stuffy nose, research shows.

That’s probably partly due to the steam from the hot soup, which loosens nasal secretions. But studies show chicken soup works better than other hot liquids, and researchers believe that may be because it contains anti-inflammatory substances.

What about other treatments?

Other remedies you may have heard of — such as essential oils, nasal strips and facial massage techniques made popular by TikTok — lack scientific evidence. But doctors say most aren’t harmful if you want to try them.

Vick’s VapoRub, a traditional treatment that many people swear by, doesn’t actually unblock your nose but creates a cooling sensation that tricks your brain into thinking your nose is clearer, according to Consumer Reports. The same is true for other products with menthol, camphor or eucalyptus oil such as cough drops.

If your nose gets worse at night, that’s normal. Try using extra pillows, or elevate your whole bed by placing some six-inch blocks under the head of the bed, Wedner suggests. “Putting yourself upright both helps your breathing and also decreases drippage down back of your throat, so it helps you feel better,” he says.

But, he notes, if your congestion lasts longer than about 10 days, you should see your health care provider, because that means you have something other than just a cold.

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