When should I see a doctor for nasal congestion?

Do you have a stuffy nose that just doesn't seem to quit? It's frustrating and inconvenient, isn't it?

Here's some advice on how to determine whether and when to make an appointment with your doctor.

Is it a Cold or Allergy?

Use this chart to help determine the cause of your nasal congestion
Symptom Common Cold Airborne Allergy
Runny Nose Common Common
Stuffy Nose Common Common
Cough Common Sometimes
Fatigue, Weakness Sometimes Sometimes
Itchy Eyes Unusual Common
Sneezing Usual Usual
Sore Throat Common Sometimes
Fever Rare Never
Duration 3 to 14 days Weeks (e.g., ragweed or grass pollen season)

Colds are usually caused by virus infection. Rhinovirus is a very common culprit. There are no effective vaccines for viruses, which means that you'll want to concentrate on reliable methods of getting some relief until the cold subside by itself. Sometimes the cause is a bacterial infection, like strep throat which can last longer than a virus, and can migrate to infect the sinuses as well. Luckily, bacterial infections respond to antibiotics, so if you're feeling really bad and seem to be recovering from a cold more slowly than usual, it's a good idea to see your doctor - a round of treatment can do wonders for your return to health.

What if it's Not a Cold or Allergy?

What if your congestion is persistent, but is not caused by a seasonal allergy or a head cold? You might be suffering from a problem deeper in the airway that's causing more prolonged symptoms.

Call your doctor if:

  • Your unexplained congestion lasts more than 10 days
  • You have a fever of 101 or higher
  • You have yellow or green nasal discharge that is yellow or green and is accompanied by sinus pain or fever
  • You have blood in your nasal discharge or a persistent clear discharge after a head injury

What will my doctor do?

The doctor will conduct a thorough examination, most likely including a look in your nose and throat to see if there's a physical blockage or signs of inflamed tissue in the throat, the soft palate or the tonsils. A swab sample to collect a culture from your sore throat will allow testing for bacteria such as streptococcus (source of the commonly named Strep Throat), and can help rule out viral infection. If the infection is caused by bacteria, your doctor will likely prescribe a round of antibiotics to help fight it, and, it's hoped, to shorten your downtime.

Remedies for Your Symptoms

Drink plenty of fluids. Water, tea and clear soups can help keep you hydrated, and can loosen mucus.

Avoid alcohol, which can cause dehydration and worsen symptoms like congestion.

Gargle with warm salt water a few times a day to help relieve sore throat and loosen mucus.

Use saline nose drops to loosen mucus and moisten the tender skin of the nasal passages.

Get plenty of rest, especially if you have a fever. Proper rest helps you combat infection.

Stop smoking, and avoid secondhand smoke, because smoke can aggravate the congestion, cough and other symptoms

Use a humidifier to add moisture to the air, and help loosen congestion.

Consider over-the-counter medicines for pain, fever and congestion. They can't cure a cold, but can ease the symptoms.

If you doctor prescribes it, take antibiotics for bacterial infection or anti-viral medicine for the flu.

The information listed on this site is for informational and educational purposes and is not meant as medical advice. Every patient's case is unique and each patient should follow his or her doctor's specific instructions. Please discuss nutrition, medication and treatment options with your doctor to make sure you are getting the proper care for your particular situation.