How to Clear Nasal Congestion

Four Methods:Quick FixesNatural RemediesMedical SolutionsWhat to Expect From a Doctor

Nasal congestion occurs when a cold or allergies cause the nasal cavity to swell and mucus to build, making it tougher to breathe. Nasal congestion can be more than merely annoying; it can be downright debilitating. Luckily, there are many ways to clear congestion and increase comfort when a cold or allergy inevitably hits. This article outlines quick fixes for clearing congestion, natural decongestion remedies, and medical solutions.

Method 1
Quick Fixes

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    Blow your nose. The easiest way to clear congestion is to force the mucus out through the nose. Carry a package of tissues or several handkerchiefs with you as you go about your day.
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    Eat something spicy. Ever had too much wasabi, and feel it go straight to the nose? That's because spicy foods thin out mucus and clear up congestion, albeit mostly temporarily. For severe congestion, try eating:
    • Hot peppers, such as jalapeno, habanero or serrano pepper
    • Horseradish or wasabi
    • Spicy ginger
    • Fenugreek
    • Onion and garlic
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    Dab on some mentholated salve. A vapor rub containing menthol will temporarily clear congestion and allow you to breathe more easily for an hour or two. Rub a bit of salve on your upper lip beneath your nose and allow the vapors to work their magic.
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    Stay vertical. Propping yourself up at night with pillows, or resisting the temptation to be horizontal, may help ease congestion and make it easier to breathe. It won't clear congestion, but it will aid in breathing and make you more comfortable.
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    Massage your sinuses. Relieve congestion the old-fashioned way — without any medicine or stimulants, just you and your fingers. Self-massaging is easy to do and effective. Here are three massages that you can do at home, at work, or in public.
    • Take both index fingers and place them on either side of the eye cavity, just above the nose but just below the brow. In outward circles, start massaging the sinuses around your nose with your fingers. Do this for 20 to 30 seconds.
    • Take both index fingers and place them right below your eyes. Again, using outward circles, massage the sinuses around your eyes using your fingers. Do this for 20 to 30 seconds.
    • Finally, take your thumbs and place them on either cheek bone. Massage your cheekbone in outward circles using your thumbs. Do this for 20 to 30 seconds. Repeat the massage again, or until your sinuses are adequately relieved.
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    Use a warm compress on your face. Soak a clean towel in warm water and wring it out until the towel is damp, but not wet. Sit down and place the towel over your face for a few minutes. The warm compress may help relieve discomfort and open up nasal passages.
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    Take a hot shower. The warm steam will pass through your lungs and into your nasal passage, loosening up mucus and relieving congestion.

Method 2
Natural Remedies

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    Use a steam treatment to loosen the mucus. When you have time for more than a hot shower, create a steam treatment to relieve congestion. Steam treatments have been a staple of sick, congested people the world over for centuries.
    • Bring 3 cups of water to boil. When it has come to a boil, remove the water from the stove top.
    • Let some chamomile tea steep in the water while it is cooling (optional).
    • When the steam is cool enough to pass over your hand without burning it, pour the water or tea into a bowl.
    • Being mindful of the warm steam, place your face over the bowl, cover your head with a towel, and breathe in deeply. If you cannot breathe in through your nose at first, breathe in through your mouth.
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    Hydrate! Drink water or juice as much as possible. For quick relief from congestion, drink 6-8 cups of water. This helps build up the immune system and shrink swollen nasal passages.
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    Use a humidifier. Humidifiers (and steam in general) are recommended as treatment for congestion because dry air irritates the membranes in the sinus, causing the symptoms to be more pronounced.[1] Therefore, wet air is recommended by many doctors.
    • If you don't have, or don't want to buy, an actual humidifier, you can build a rudimentary one yourself using commonplace items around your home. Boil enough water to fit in a large pan, remove from the heat, and place the hot water in a safe part of your room. The steam coming from the water will humidify the room. Repeat as necessary.
    • When using a humidifier, a little goes a long way. You don't want conditions to get so damp that your room becomes a tropical jungle. A little moisture in the air, just enough to turn it a bit moist, is all you need.
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    Make your own nasal saline solution. Salt water can serve as unmedicated saline solution. Add one teaspoon of salt to one cup of water, stirring to dissolve. With an eye dropper, deposit a few drops of the saline solution into one nostril while your head is tilted back. Blow the solution out of your nostril and repeat in the opposite nostril.
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    Irrigate your nasal passage by using a neti pot. For some, nasal irrigation may bring quick relief of sinus symptoms without the use of medications.[2] The neti pot works by thinning out mucus and flushing it out of the nasal passage.
    • All neti pots come with their own set of instructions that should be followed. Typically, however, one first prepares an irrigating solution made up of 16 ounces lukewarm (and sterile) water, along with 1 teaspoon of salt. Fill your neti pot with the saline solution.
    • Tilt your head at a 45 degree angle and bring the tip of the neti pot to your top nostril. The saline solution will go into one nostril, travel through your nasal cavity, and come out of the other nostril. If the solution drips into your mouth, just spit it out. Blow your nose and repeat the process on the other side.
    • How often should you irrigate with a neti pot? People suffering from severe sinus problems or allergies found relief irrigating daily.[2] Once symptoms get better, the recommended usage is three times per week.
    • In some parts of the world, water may be contaminated with naegleria fowleri, an amoeba that, if inhaled through the nose, can cause a usually fatal brain infection. The CDC recommends boiling water for at least one minute (three minutes at higher elevations) before using it in a neti pot rinse solution, or buying sterile water from a store.[3]
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    Exercise. Although it's the last thing you want to do, moving around helps your body refresh. An easy way to clear congestion fast is to do twenty push ups, only breathing through your nose. Your brain knows its in need of more air, so it will help to stop nasal swelling and thin mucus levels.
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    Bathe in essential oils. Certain essential oils help loosen mucus and clear the sinuses. Fill the bathtub with warm water and add ten drops of eucalyptus oil, rosemary oil, or tea tree oil. Rest in the bathtub until your nasal passages are clear and breathing becomes easier.
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    Sleep. While it might seem overrated, take off from work or school to stay home and sleep all day. This gives your body time to heal and begin fighting your cold. If you have trouble sleeping because of congestion, try medication, Breathe Right strips, or breathe through your mouth. (Use chapstick if you breathe through your mouth, because it could dry out your lips.)
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    Get calm. Stress slows the immune system down. The more stressed out you are, the longer it will take to clear out your sinuses.

Method 3
Medical Solutions

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    Use an over-the-counter decongestant. Decongestants can be purchased at your local drugstore. They come in several different varieties:
    • Decongestant sprays, such as naphazoline (Privine), oxymetazoline (Afrin, Dristan, Duramist), or phenylephrine (Neo-Synephrine, Sinex, Rhinall).[1]
    • Pill form, such as phenylephrine (Lusonal, Sudafed PE, Sudogest PE) and pseudoephedrine ( Sudafed, Sudogest).[1]
    • Do not take a decongestant spray for more than three days, as it may worsen symptoms. In addition, do not take oral decongestants for more than seven days without conferring with your doctor. Follow all instructions on over-the-counter decongestants.
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    Use an antihistamine. Antihistamines, along with other allergy medicines, are beneficial in relieving some congestion. Opt for antihistamines that also contain a decongestant so that you can treat sniffling and sneezing along with mucus and sinus pressure. Try these natural antihistamines for organic variety:
    • Stinging nettle. Some doctors recommend taking a freeze-dried preparation of stinging nettle, which is known for its ability to reduce the amount of histamine the body produces.[4]
    • Coldsfoot may be effective as a natural antihistamine. Europeans have a long history of using the plant to cure skin conditions. The leaves can either be ground up into a paste or coldsfoot extract can be ingested in pill form.
    • Basil may also work as a natural antihistamine. Heat a couple sprigs of basil leaves up under some steam and breathe steam in. Basil may help reassure the body that the histamines it's sending out can be reduced.

Method 4
What to Expect From a Doctor

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    Be ready to answer several basic questions. Nasal congestion has a host of potential causes, and you won't get good treatment without honest answers. Some potential questions your doctor will ask include:
    • Amount of time congested. If longer than seven days, see a doctor immediately.
    • Color of mucus
    • Other symptoms, including aches, fever, coughing, etc.
    • Any known allergies.
    • Whether or not you smoke.[5]
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    Expect the first line of defense to be antibiotics and prescription drugs. Most nasal congestion is a symptom of a cold or other infection. Accordingly, most doctors will start with drugs to fight the infection off.
    • Be sure to tell the doctor if you take any other drugs or medication regularly.
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    Prepare for an endoscopy, when a camera is placed up your nose for diagnosis. It sounds uncomfortable, but topical anesthetic makes it pain-free and easy. A thin camera is snaked into your sinus to look for polyps, septum deviations, or infections. If your symptoms persists, expect this to be the doctor's first move after drugs.
    • The alternative, a radiologic (x-ray) study, is both expensive and impractical, but may be needed for extreme or difficult cases.
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    Ask about somnoplasty to cure some chronic cases of congestion. This easy, 15-minute procedure uses heat to open up your sinuses and clear blockage. You will be put under local anesthetic and will likely be out the door within an hour.
    • While you will have hot needles in both nostrils, most patients hardly feel a thing.
    • There will be congestion for the first 1-2 weeks as you heal.
    • If the procedure does not work, it can be repeated several weeks later.
    • This is usually performed by an ENT doctor in their office, not at the hospital.[6]
  5. 5
    Understand that your doctor will only recommend surgery in extreme cases. If you have a major infection or blockage, you might need endoscopic sinus surgery. A rigid camera will be placed up your nose, which is used to guide a surgeon trying to remove diseased areas or opening up natural cavities.
    • Surgery is almost always outpatient. You will return home that day.
    • Pain is minimal, and you should feel as good as new within a week or less.
    • Revisions are occasionally necessary, though the success rate is high.[7]
  6. 6
    Ask about laser turbinate surgery (LTS) for minimally invasive, extra-quick decongestion. Turbinates are the structures in your nose that cause congestion. Using CO2 or KTP lasers, they are shrunk down within 20 minutes. There is no packing needed and you can return to work the same day.
    • You may have light congestion for a week before everything clears up.
    • You will have mild local anesthetic -- no needles needed.
    • The drawback of LTS is the expense. It may not be offered at all clinics.[8]


  • Don't eat dairy products or chocolate, both of which cause mucus buildup.
  • Stay away from chlorinated water. The chlorine in pools, for example, can irritate mucus membranes, making your congestion even worse.
  • If you have a sinus headache, take some painkiller (such as Tylenol, Advil, etc.)
  • If available use some breathe right strips, you can get them at Walgreens and most drug stores.


  • Don't use a vapor salve under your nose if it is raw and sore from being blown. The salve may sting.

Article Info

Categories: Nasal and Sinus Care