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Sure, it’s not a medical emergency; but it is miserable. When you get an infection such as a cold, flu or sinus infection, the invading bacteria or viruses cause inflammation and swelling in the tissues lining the nose. “The nasal passages are not very big, so it doesn’t take much swelling of the blood vessels for air not to get through,” says Scott Stringer, MD, chair in the Department of Otolaryngology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, Mississippi. While nothing makes the stuffiness go away faster—you’ll just have to ride it out over a few days — there are ways to feel a little better:
Try an oral decongestant
Pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) shrinks blood vessels in the lining of your nose so you can breathe easier. You’ll have to get it at the pharmacist’s counter and show ID because it’s used to make the street drug meth. Phenylephrine (Sudafed PE) is another over-the-counter decongestant, but it doesn’t work for everyone. The downside is these drugs may make you feel jittery or raise blood pressure so avoid them if you have high blood pressure, says Dr. Stringer.
Squirt a decongestant spray
Nasal sprays such as oxymetazoline (Afrin) have few side effects, and they give rapid relief of symptoms. “It’s as close to ‘instant’ relief as you can get,” says Yul Ejnes, MD, past chair for the American College of Physicians. “Just be sure not to use them longer than a few days, or you may experience a rebound effect which makes congestion worse.”
Rinse your sinuses
Neti pots and nasal irrigators may relieve congestion briefly by clearing out excess mucus. “Generally, you’ll breathe better for about an hour, and you can repeat the process as necessary,” says Stringer. But don’t use plain tap water in these devices; it may contain bacteria or other organisms that can cause serious infections in the nasal passages. Instead, opt for distilled water or boil tap water for three to five minutes, then cool before using.
Warm, damp air opens up your nose, so take a hot shower or sit with your head over a bowl of steaming, hot water. “Anything that makes the mucus more mobile can make you feel better temporarily,” says Dr. Stringer. Running a humidifier in your bedroom also may help; clean it regularly according to the manufacturer’s instructions to prevent the growth of bacteria and mold. If your nose is super-irritated, dab a teeny blob of petroleum jelly just inside the nostrils or use a saline spray or gel to soothe dryness.
Call your doc
If you’re not improving after about a week or ten days, or if you get better then get worse, you may have developed a bacterial infection; you’ll need to see your doctor to discuss antibiotics. Your doctor also may evaluate you for allergies, which can cause persistent congestion, says Dr. Ejnes.