Swollen nasal passages can be quite an annoying problem, though you may know it better as nasal congestion.
Basically, it’s the worst stuffy nose you’ve ever had! Imagine that your nasal passages are swollen shut; so swollen, in fact, that it becomes very difficult to breathe through your nose, and with an abnormal amount of mucus being produced. That’s how it feels to have swollen nasal passages.
Needless to say, this condition can make your life something of a nightmare, at least temporarily; your day at the office will seem as though it lasts forever, getting to sleep is just impossible, and you always need a box of tissues by your side.
Why Your Nasal Passages Get Swollen
Although nasal congestion isn’t usually a serious problem, the swelling is a common sign that you are suffering many possible conditions, including the common cold or flu, allergic rhinitis, sinusitis, and other types of upper respiratory infections. Let’s take a deeper look at the health conditions that cause swollen nasal passages.
- Acute or chronic sinusitis: The sinuses are cavities around the nose, eyes, and cheeks. They are lined with mucus membranes that serve to moisten air. The sinuses also help protect against harmful allergens, viruses, and bacteria. Sinusitis arises when the sinuses are inflamed due to fungal, viral, or bacterial infections.
- Allergic rhinitis or allergies: Allergic rhinitis is also called a hay fever, and it’s a response to certain allergens like mold, dust, grass, or pollen. Nasal congestion is the reaction produced by the body when it responds to these allergens by releasing histamines.
- Common cold or flu: A stuffy nose caused by a buildup of mucus is a typical symptom of the common cold or flu. However, this symptom is also a sign that the body is trying to expel the virus by getting you to rest and slow down. A weak immune system, poor lifestyle habits, and nutritional deficiencies are usually at the root of frequent colds and flus.
- Nasal polyps: A nasal polyp is a non-cancerous and small growth of the lining of your nose that can cause a blockage or swollen nasal passages. It forms due to the chronic inflammation of nasal mucus membranes. Nasal congestion due to nasal polyps can be triggered by asthma, chronic sinus infections, allergic rhinitis, or cystic fibrosis.
- Deviated septum: The septum is the cartilage in the nose that separates the nostrils. A severely uneven septum is called a deviated septum, and this can cause swollen nasal passages or difficulty breathing.
- Rhinitis medicamentosa: Rhinitis medicamentosa is a condition that arises as the result of the excessive use of nasal decongestant sprays. Although the sprays are designed to provide relief from nasal congestion, overusing them can also lead to a stuffy nose. As a result, nasal decongestants should only be used when needed. Some of these nasal sprays include oxymetazoline, phenylephrine, and naphazoline.
- Other causes of swollen nasal passages: Other possible causes of swollen nasal passages include environmental irritants, chemical exposure, food allergies or sensitivities, enlarged adenoids, or non-cancerous tumors.
How to Recognize if Your Nasal Passages Are Swollen
Besides nasal congestion or a stuffy nose, there are other ways to recognize swollen nasal passages, such as:
- A runny nose and difficulty breathing;
- Pain or pressure around your eyes and cheekbones;
- Drainage of a thick, greenish or yellow discharge from the nose or back of the throat;
- Reduced sense of taste and smell;
- Itchy, red, or watery eyes;
- Skin eruptions such as rashes, hives, or eczema;
- Sleep apnea and snoring;
- Fatigue, irritability, and a general sense of tiredness;
- Earache or toothache;
- Bad breath;
- Coughing that may worsen at night;
- Sore throat; and
Diagnosing Swollen Nasal Passages
To help determine the cause of your swollen nasal passages, your doctor may use a variety of diagnostic methods. The doctor will make a diagnosis based on your symptoms and an examination of your nose. Other diagnostic tests used to determine the cause of your swollen nasal passages include the following:
- Nasal endoscopy: An endoscope is a thin and flexible tube with a fiber-optic light that gets inserted into your nose, and it allows doctor to see inside your sinuses. This method is also called a rhinoscopy.
- Imaging studies: A computerized tomography scan or magnetic resonance imaging will reveal the health of your sinuses and nasal region to help identify any physical obstructions or deep-seated inflammation that an endoscope may have a problem detecting. It can also help pinpoint the location and size of your sinuses to evaluate the degree of inflammation.
- Sinus and nasal cultures: Nasal and sinus cultures may help pinpoint the cause of swollen nasal passages such as fungi or bacteria. That said, cultures are usually not needed for diagnosing chronic sinusitis.
- An allergy test: If your swollen nasal passages are due to allergies, an allergy test may be recommended such as a skin-prick test or an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay.
Treating Swollen Nasal Passages
There are a number of over-the-counter drugs used in the treatment of nasal congestion or sinus pressure, including antihistamines, painkillers, and decongestants, but as mentioned before, nasal decongestant sprays can lead to complications, so it’s best to limit their use. Fortunately, there are a number of natural home remedies for swollen nasal passages. Here are few you can try.
1. Natural Nasal Irrigation
Nasal irrigation can help drain your sinuses for quick relief. Saline irrigation has been found to reduce nasal congestion more effectively than saline sprays, and it works by thinning mucus, reducing swelling, and removing bacteria, allergens, and debris from your nose. A neti pot—which looks like a teapot—is the method by which the saline wash is delivered. It has been used in Ayurvedic and yogic traditions for thousands of years.
Studies have continually demonstrated the antiallergenic activity of quercetin; in particular, quercetin prevents the release of histamine from basophils and mast cells. However, regular quercetin has a problem being absorbed. That said, a highly bioavailable enzymatically modified form of isoquercitrin has been found to significantly improve the symptoms of hay fever including nasal congestion.
3. Berberine-Containing Plants
Berberine is an alkaloid with immune-enhancing and antibiotic effects, and can also activate the macrophages, a type of white blood cell. This means that berberine can help destroy harmful viruses, bacteria, and tumor cells. Examples of plants with berberine include goldenseal, Oregon grape, coptis, and barberry.
4. Remove Food Sensitivities or Allergies
Food allergies or sensitivities can trigger symptoms like nasal congestion, so removing them can go a long way towards reducing a stuffy nose. To detect these possible triggers, it’s a good idea to try a food elimination diet, a meridian stress assessment test, bio-analysis with bio-energetic testing, or bio-meridian testing. Also, sometimes allergies result in swollen nasal passages with no mucus, resulting in dry sinuses.
5. Aromatherapy Steam Bath
You can open your sinuses with an aromatherapy steam bath or shower. To do this, simply put a couple of drops of essential oils into a bowl of hot water, and then breathe in the vapors while in a massage, shower, bath, or steam inhalation. Eucalyptus in particular will help clear your sinuses out very quickly. Lavender will also stimulate your immune system and help you sleep. Tea tree oil is also great for a steam or both with antibacterial and antiviral properties.
Homeopathy thought to benefit the sinus cavities. For instance, silicea is used for frequent colds and low immunity with chronic sinus infections. Pulsatilla is a great remedy for a stuffy nose with loss of smell. Other beneficial remedies for the sinuses include mercurius vivus or solubilis, bryonia, kali bichromicum, hepar sulphuris, belladonna, and hydrastis. Other remedies for a stuffy nose include nux vomica, sambucus, sticta, and lycopodium.
7. Other Natural Remedies for Swollen Nasal Passages
Other natural methods for swollen nasal passages include a high-quality probiotic supplement, vitamin C with bioflavonoids, grapefruit seed extract, grape seed extract, maritime pine back extract, garlic, turmeric, elderflower tea, oregano oil, N-acetylcysteine, colloidal silver, South African geranium, bromelain, methylsulfonylmethane, stinging nettle, and thymus extract.
Preventing Swollen Nasal Passages
How do you prevent swollen nasal passages? Here are a few easy prevention methods to help clear your nasal passages and keep you breathing well.
- A warm facial compress: It’s a good idea to apply a warm compress to your face at least three times daily for five minutes at a time. Soak a small towel in warm water and place it over your face and between the eyes. This will help increase the circulation to your sinuses.
- Drink lots of fluids: Clean liquids are important to clear your sinuses. Drinking a glass of water every couple of hours can be beneficial, while drinking hot liquids can help moisturize your mucous membranes. Consume plenty of herbal teas, vegetable juices, and bone broths.
- Eat certain foods for sinuses: Several foods are essential for mucus drainage and to ease the pressure in your sinuses, including horseradish, onions, garlic, and cayenne pepper. Probiotic foods are also beneficial for the immune system, such as kefir, sauerkraut, kombucha, and kimchi.
- Eat flaxseed: Ground flaxseed or flaxseed oil are also key foods for reducing inflammation. You can add a tablespoon or two of grounded flaxseed or flaxseed oil to smoothies or salads every day.
Warning Signs of Swollen Nasal Passages
Sometimes a swollen nasal passage is a sign of something worse, such as paranasal sinus cancer. This type of cancer is usually uncovered when you are being treated for a sinus condition like sinusitis. Here are some of the warning signs or clues if this is the case:
- Unexplained weight loss;
- A lump in the neck;
- Loose teeth;
- A sore or lump inside the nose that won’t go away;
- Issues opening the mouth;
- Frequent nosebleeds;
- Numbness or pain in the teeth;
- Vision loss or bulging of one eye; and
- Persistent tearing of the eyes.
Tips to Reduce Nasal Passage Swelling
Other tips to help you reduce swollen nasal passages include:
- Dusting your bedroom regularly: Dust or dust mites can cause damage to your mucous membranes, especially while you are sleeping, so dust your room regularly.
- Avoiding chlorinated pools: Chlorine is known to irritate the mucous membranes in your nasal passages.
- Elevating your head while sleeping: Use a couple of pillows to prop your head up in bed—this will make breathing easier.
- Exercising regularly: Regular or even daily exercise will help clear your nasal passages, but avoid exercising if you have a fever.
When to See the Doctor
As mentioned, there is plenty you can do on your own to relieve the pain from nasal congestion and swollen nasal passages, but if the condition persists, you’ll need to make an appointment with your physician. A good rule of thumb is that if you experience sinus pressure or nasal congestion for longer than seven days, you should definitely go see your doctor for a medical assessment.
At that point you may even be referred to an allergist or nose specialist. You can also go to a naturopathic doctor for more a natural approach. Other reasons you should head to a doctor immediately are:
- A severe headache or a swollen forehead;
- Swelling or pain around the eyes;
- Shortness of breath;
- A stiff neck;
- Confusion; and
- Double vision or other vision problems.
Sources for Today’s Article:
Murray, M., M.D., et al, The Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine (New York: Atria Paperback, 2012), 602, 958–959.
Balch, J., et al., Prescription for Natural Cures: A Self-Care Guide for Treating Health Problems with Natural Remedies Including Diet, Nutrition, Supplements, and Other Holistic Methods (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2004), 30–31, 493–498.
“Nasal Cavity and Paranasal Sinus Cancer: Symptoms and Signs,” Cancer web site, August 2014; http://www.cancer.net/cancer-types/nasal-cavity-and-paranasal-sinus-cancer/symptoms-and-signs, last accessed April 15, 2016.
“Chronic Sinusitis: Symptoms,” Mayo Clinic web site, July 2, 2013; http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/chronic-sinusitis/basics/symptoms/con-20022039, last accessed April 15, 2016.