- Some of the best medicines to relieve symptoms of nasal congestion include over-the-counter decongestants, pain relievers, antihistamines, and nasal sprays.
- Home remedies like humidifiers, aromatherapy, and neti pots can also relieve symptoms of nasal congestion like cough and a stuffy nose.
- A sinus congestion will usually go away on its own, but if you experience a high fever, discoloration in mucus, or if your symptoms are not improving after 10 days, then you should consider seeing a doctor.
- Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.
Sinus congestion, aka sinusitis, occurs when the tissues that line your nasal passages and sinuses become swollen or inflamed. Although a virus, cold, or seasonal allergies are the most common causes of sinus congestion, a bacterial infection could also be the culprit of your misery.
If you have sinus congestion, you’re most likely to experience one or a combination of the following symptoms:
Is it a cold or a sinus infection? How to differentiate the common cold from a more serious sinus infection
If you have sinus congestion, you should seek medical attention if your symptoms last for 10 days or longer, you have a high fever of 103 °F (39.4 °C) or more, or if the color of your nasal discharge changes during the course of illness, as this could be a sign of a bacterial infection that may require prescription medication.
Nasal congestion can be annoying, but it’s usually nothing to worry about for the average person. In fact, sinus congestion can be easily treated at home via over-the-counter (OTC) decongestants, OTC pain relievers, prescription medication, or a combination of natural remedies.
Here are the best medicines for a sinus congestion and when your condition may benefit from seeing a doctor.
4 OTC medicine for sinus congestion
When your sinuses become inflamed and congested, this means that the tiny, air-filled spaces that are connected to your nasal cavity have been blocked or are unable to drain normally. This buildup of mucus then causes a feeling of pressure or “fullness” in your forehead, eyes, or jaw. Luckily, OTC medications, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, can alleviate pain caused by the pressure buildup.
Here are the most common types of OTC medication for sinus congestion:
1. Decongestant: Nasal decongestants are available in tablets, liquids, and nasal sprays and work by reducing blood flow to the sinuses, ultimately reducing nasal swelling and inflammation. Popular nasal decongestants include:
- Phenylephrine with brand names Sudafed PE, Vicks Sinex, and Pretz-D.
- Pseudoephedrine with brand names Sudafed, Dimetapp Decongestant, and 12 Hour Cold Maximum Strength.
2. Pain reliever: There are two main categories of pain relievers:
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): According to the Better Health Channel, NSAIDs, such as aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen (Aleve) prevent the body from producing prostaglandins, hormone-like chemicals, that cause pain, fever, and inflammation by raising the body’s temperature and dilating the blood vessels, causing redness and swelling.
- Acetaminophen (Tylenol): Unlike NSAIDs, acetaminophens do not reduce swelling or inflammation. Instead, they are pain killers, thought to work by blocking the brain from feeling pain, though there are still a few theories as to how or why this happens.
3. Antihistamines: Antihistamines are commonly used to treat allergies, but they can be used to treat stomach problems and the common cold among other ailments. Antihistamines work by blocking the effects of histamine, which your immune system releases to protect against foreign invasions. Histamines cause symptoms like inflammation, congestion, a runny nose, and sneezing. So antihistamines are designed to alleviate those symptoms. Popular antihistamines include cetirizine (Zyrtec) and fexofenadine (Allegra).
4. Nasal spray: There are a variety of OTC nasal sprays to relieve sinus confestion including decongestant sprays, antihistamine sprays, and steroid nasal sprays:
- Decongestant nasal sprays (Afrin, Sinex) work by shrinking swollen blood vessels that line the nose, reducing inflammation and allowing you to breathe better. Decongestant nasal sprays should be used no more than 3-5 days in a row and you should check the instructions to see the recommended max limit.
- Antihistamine sprays block the effects of histamine to reduce sneezing, itching, and runny nose. Some prescription brands include Astelin and Patanase.
- Steroid nasal sprays (Rhinocort Allergy, Flonase Allergy Relief) mimic hormones produced by the adrenal glands to reduce inflammation and swelling. Steroid nasal sprays can be used to treat hay fever, sinusitis, non-allergic rhinitis, and nasal polyps, as these sprays relieve sneezing and a runny or blocked nose.
3 natural remedies for sinus congestion
The 5 best home remedies for a sinus infection
When you’re feeling stuffed up and miserable, getting to the drugstore seems almost impossible. Fortunately for you, there are a number of home remedies for sinus congestion relief, here’s three:
1. Humidity: Keeping your nasal passages moist when you’re experiencing sinus congestion may help to relieve that “stuffy” feeling. To do this, apply a warm, wet towel against your face or run hot water in the shower to unblock the sinuses. You could also use a humidifier for the same purpose.
2. Neti pot: A neti pot looks like a miniature teapot with a long spout. With the help of saline or a saltwater solution, these tiny nasal irrigation devices are used to treat congested sinuses, allergies, and the common cold. You can purchase a neti pot online or at your nearest health food or drugstore. Note of caution: Tap water isn’t safe to use as it’s not filtered or treated and may contain material that could cause infection or irritation.
3. Aromatherapy: Aromatherapy is a holistic healing treatment that uses essential oils to reduce pain or improve sleep. While there’s still research that needs to be done, some studies suggest specific essential oils may relieve symptoms of sinus congestion. According to the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA), 1,8 cineole, the main component of eucalyptus oil, has been proven to clear airways of mucus and is a natural cough suppressant.
“With regards to herbal remedies or aromatherapy, the top two contenders are peppermint oil and eucalyptus,” says Inna Husain, MD, the Section Head of Laryngology and Director of the Voice, Airway, and Swallowing Disorders Program at Rush University Medical Center. “Peppermint oil contains menthol so [it] can have a cooling effect on the nasal passages making people feel better but without really decongesting the passages.”
However, some people may be sensitive or allergic to certain aromas, which could exacerbate symptoms, so be cautious when using aromas and look out for any irritation or signs of an allergic reaction.
When to see a doctor
There are a few instances in which you should consult a doctor, including:
- Symptoms lasting 10 days or longer
- High fever 103 °F (39.4 °C)
- Change in mucus color
- Severe sinus pain
- Blood in your nasal discharge
These symptoms could be a sign of a more serious infection or condition like nasal polyp disease, chronic sinusitis, or a cancerous growth in the nasal or sinus cavity.
“Untreated sinusitis — past 7-10 days — will cause prolonged crippling symptoms that may affect your quality of life and your ability to work or study,” says Gan Eng Cern, a fellowship trained Consultant Ear, Nose & Throat (ENT) Surgeon with a private practice. “If you have asthma or bronchitis, untreated sinusitis can in fact worsen these conditions.”
If you decide to see a doctor for your sinus congestion, he or she may prescribe antibiotics or an antifungal, depending on the cause.
“In rare cases, severe untreated sinusitis may lead to orbital cellulitis or orbital abscess,” adds Eng Cern. “They are known as infections of the eye. It also has the potential to affect the brain. For example, meningitis, brain abscess and sinus cavity clot are types of brain infections that may be caused by untreated sinusitis.”
There are many treatment options for sinus congestion, but an OTC decongestant and a few days of rest should do the trick. If that doesn’t work, there’s no harm in exhausting your other options — like a neti pot, humidifier, or aromatherapy — before you head to the doctor’s office.
“While decongestants can help manage nasal congestion symptoms, it’s best to just let it run its course naturally,” says Jolene Caulfield, senior advisor for Healthy Howard, a nonprofit organization that advocates for healthy living.
Leaving sinus congestion untreated can be uncomfortable and disrupt daily life. That’s why “most doctors recommend decongestants, nasal sprays, and inhaling moisture with the help of humidifiers.”
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