The Fastest Way to Relieve Congestion, According to Doctors
Be it due to allergies, a cold, asthma or otherwise, congestion is a real pain in the neck. Actually, a pain in the face—that stuffed-up, achy sensation in the sinus area is no joke, as you can attest to if you're one of the 9 to 16% of Americans who experience it often.
Although it's far from pleasant, congestion is actually a sign that your immune system is working appropriately.
"Nasal congestion is the body's defense mechanism when it senses something foreign entering the nasal cavity," explains Jonathan Simmonds, M.D., an ear, nose and throat physician and sinus and skull base surgeon at Westmed Medical Group in Rye, New York. "Structures that sit next to your septum, called turbinates, swell with cells that work for the immune system to fight off these foreign substances."
This swelling works to protect you by:
- Providing a larger surface area to capture these foreign substances, and
- Blocking off the nasal passage to prevent the invader from attacking the rest of the airway
While this is a terrific illness barrier when you are exposed to a virus, "it can be quite annoying when this happens in response to something innocuous, like pollen," Simmonds says, and allergies like this are actually a major cause of congestion.
Beyond that stopped-up sensation, symptoms can include runny nose, post-nasal drip (and perhaps a resulting sore throat or cough), a heavy head and a burning feeling in the sinus area.
When congestion occurs, the nose is producing more mucus in order to rid itself of something that it finds irritating—this could be a virus (like the common cold or flu), allergens or a sinus infection, adds Mary Pat Friedlander, M.D., associate program director at the UPMC St. Margaret Family Residency Program in Pittsburgh. So the goal with any congestion-relief option is to loosen up or remove that mucus so you can breathe easier.
The Fastest Way to Relieve Congestion, According to Doctors
Most forms of congestion get better over time on their own—and recovery tends to speed up if you follow the pro tips below.
1. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.
Here's some intel that will help you recover quicker from nearly any infection: "Rest and hydration help our immune system fight infections," says Monaa Zafar, M.D., a primary care physician at Westmed Medical Group in Purchase, New York.
Women need around 91 ounces of H2O per day, while men should aim for about 125 ounces. (ICYMI, how much water you should drink, by the numbers.)
"Fluids are important anytime patients are under the weather, to help prevent dehydration from sweating or from appetite loss," adds Isabel Valdez, P.A., a physician assistant and assistant professor of internal medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
2. Get steamy.
You'll score healing bonus points if some of those fluids come by way of warm liquids, such as hot tea.
"Inhaling steam from warm water or even from tea as you sip it, could help moisturize the sinuses and help loosen the mucus as well," Valdez says.
You can also get similar steam room-like benefits (for $0 and at home) in a toasty shower, so each morning and night, try to spend at least five minutes in the steamy environment of your shower bay.
"Steam from a hot shower works well for nasal congestion," Simmonds explains. "Unlike most other parts of the body, the nasal mucosa actually shrinks in response to heat. Steam will likely provide some temporary relief."
3. Flush things out.
The single most helpful and instant home remedy, according to Friedlander, is a saltwater rinse or a neti pot.
"This is a great way to relieve nasal congestion. Just be sure to use distilled water when making the solution," she says, which is a *must* according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's neti pot safety guidance.
To use a neti pot (like this NeilMed NasaFlo Neti Pot Sinus Relief with Premixed Packets; buy it: $13.99, Target) the FDA way:
- Wash your hands.
- Fill the pot with distilled or sterile water, or tap water you've boiled for five minutes then cooled to lukewarm. Add saline per package instructions.
- Stand with your head leaning over a sink and breathe through your open mouth.
- Tilt your head slightly sideways so one nostril is higher than the other, then position the spout of the neti pot in the higher nostril.
- As the water flows into the higher nostril, it will flow out the lower nostril and empty into the sink.
- Do this for about one minute, clear nostrils completely, then repeat on the other side.
A system like this Navage Nasal Care Starter Bundle (buy it: $99.95, Amazon) makes the nasal irrigation process easier and more hands-off. "If using a neti pot is too cumbersome or even too gross, over-the-counter nasal saline spray can also be helpful," Friedlander says. (One to try: Simply Saline Nasal Care Daily Relief Mist Spray; buy it: $7.29 for 4.5 ounces, Target)
"These remedies can provide relief after one or two uses. With nasal rinses, the benefit increases with increased use," Zafar adds, noting that using a humidifier can also be effective.
4. Use caution with certain over-the-counter medications.
While it might be tempting to run to the drugstore to fill your basket with everything in the decongestant aisle—they are called decongestants!—these come with a warning from all of the medical pros we spoke to.
Common decongestant nasal sprays (oxymetazoline/Afrin and phenylephrine/Sinex) and decongestant pills (pseudoephedrine/Sudafed) should be used with caution because excessive use can eventually exacerbate the congestion, Zafar says.
A condition called "rebound congestion" may crop up after use of these medications for more than three days. "Your body can get used to these medicines, and if you use it constantly, you can end up with worse congestion than when you started," Simmonds says.
Avoid taking nasal decongestants for more than three days at a time.
5. Address any potential congestion triggers.
Antihistamines may help if your congestion is related to allergies, but the quickest and easiest solution is attacking the problem at its source.
"If your congestion is triggered by allergies or irritation, removing the allergen will offer the best help," Friedlander says.
Replace carpet with wood or tile floors that don't trap dust mites or dander. If possible, keep windows closed to avoid pollen inside and use HEPA filters in your HVAC system and air purifiers.
The Bottom Line
"If your symptoms are not improving, contact your doctor for further recommendations," Friedlander says, and keep track of the duration of your congestion and the other symptoms that come along with it to alert your medical care team.
No need to bring a "sample" if you do end up visiting your doc, however. (Yep, it happens, Friedlander says!) "The color of the congestion is not really important," she says, if said congestion includes mucus discharge.