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Keep your environment free of irritants and allergens that can trigger sinus congestion, such as dust, mold, smoke, chemical fumes, and animal dander
Use steam inhalation with eucalyptus oil or products containing menthol to reduce nasal stuffiness
Prepare a warm, salt-water solution in a special ceramic pot known as a "neti lota" pot and pour it through your nose to relieve your sinuses
Work with a knowledgeable practitioner to find out if food allergens may contribute to your sinus congestion
Visit your doctor to find out if your sinus congestion may be caused by an infection, inhalant allergy, or other treatable medical condition
Sinus congestion (also called nasal congestion or rhinitis) involves blockage of one or more of the four
pairs of sinus passageways in the skull.
The blockage may result from inflammation and swelling of the nasal tissues, obstruction by one of the
small bones of the nose (deviated septum), or from secretion of mucus. It may be acute or chronic. Acute
sinus congestion is most often caused by the common cold. Sinus
congestion caused by the common cold is not discussed here. Chronic sinus congestion often results from
environmental irritants such as tobacco smoke, food allergens, inhaled
allergens, or foreign bodies in the nose.
Sinus congestion leads to impaired flow of fluids in the sinuses, which predisposes people to bacterial infections that can cause
sinusitis. At least two serious disorders have been associated with chronic nasal congestion: chronic
lymphocytic leukemia and HIV.1, 2 For this reason,
chronic nasal congestion lasting three months or more should be evaluated by a medical professional.
Sinus congestion typically causes symptoms of pressure, tenderness, or pain in the area above the eyebrows (frontal sinus) and above the upper, side teeth (maxillary sinus). Other symptoms include nasal stuffiness sometimes accompanied by a thick yellow or green discharge, postnasal drip, bad breath, and an irritating dry cough.
The most common cause of nasal congestion is allergy to inhalants, such as pollen, molds, dust mites, trees, or animal dander. Exposure to various chemicals in the home or workplace may also contribute to allergic rhinitis. Indoor and outdoor air pollution may also be a factor in susceptible people. Smoking and secondhand exposure to tobacco smoke have been implicated in chronic nasal congestion3 and the prevalence of chronic rhinitis among men has been shown to increase with increasing cigarette consumption.4 People exposed to chlorine, such as lifeguards and swimmers, may also be at risk of developing nasal congestion.5
Careful evaluation by an allergist or other healthcare professional may help identify factors contributing to nasal congestion. Sometimes strict avoidance of the triggering agents (e.g., thoroughly vacuuming house dust or using dust covers on the mattresses) may provide relief. Where complete avoidance of irritants is not possible, desensitization techniques (immunotherapy [allergy shots]) may be helpful.
Nasal irrigation with warm water or saline may be helpful for reducing symptoms of sinus congestion, although steam inhalations appear to be less useful. In a study of people suffering from the common cold, steam inhalation did not improve sinus congestion any better than placebo.6 In a similar controlled study, irrigation of the nasal passages with heated water or saline, decreased nasal secretions, although inhalation of water vapor did not.7
Acupuncture may be useful for decreasing chronic sinus congestion. In one clinical study, most participants experienced at least temporary relief after acupuncture needles were inserted alongside the nose.8
Food allergy appears to play an important role in many cases of rhinitis, which is related to sinus congestion. In a study of children under one year of age with allergic rhinitis and/or asthma, 91% had a significant improvement in symptoms while following an allergy-elimination diet. In the experience of one group of doctors, food allergy was the most common cause of chronic rhinitis. Two other researchers have found food allergy to be a contributing factor to allergic rhinitis in 25% and 39% of cases, respectively. Food allergies are best identified by means of an allergy-elimination diet, which should be supervised by a doctor.
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Caution: Do not use eucalyptus oil internally without supervision by a healthcare professional. As little as 3.5 ml of the oil taken internally has proven fatal.
Eucalyptus oil is often used in a steam inhalation to help clear nasal and sinus congestion. Eucalyptus oil is said to function in a fashion similar to that of menthol by acting on receptors in the nasal mucous membranes, leading to a reduction in the symptoms of nasal stuffiness.
1. Amir R, Dowdy YG, Goldberg AN. Chronic rhinitis: a manifestation of chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Am J Otolaryngol 1999;20:328-31.
2. Lin RY, Lazarus TS. Asthma and related atopic disorders in outpatients attending an urban HIV clinic. Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol 1995;74:510-5.
3. Benninger, MS. The impact of cigarette smoking and environmental tobacco smoke on nasal and sinus disease: a review of the literature. Am J Rhinol 1999;13:435-8.
4. Annesi-Maesano I, Oryszczyn MP, Neukirch F, Kauffmann F. Relationship of upper airway disease to tobacco smoking and allergic markers: a cohort study of men followed up for 5 years. Int Arch Allergy Immunol 1997;114:193-201.
5. Leroyer C, Malo JL, Girard D, et al. Chronic rhinitis in workers at risk of reactive airways dysfunction syndrome due to exposure to chlorine. Occup Environ Med 1999;56:334-8.
6. Macknin ML, Mathew S, Medendorp SV. Effect of inhaling heated vapor on symptoms of the common cold. JAMA 1990;264:989-91.
7. Georgitis JW. Nasal hyperthermia and simple irrigation for perennial rhinitis. Changes in inflammatory mediators. Chest 1994;106:1487-92.
8. Hu Y, Liu J. 200 cases of chronic rhinitis treated by acupuncture at nei ying xiang. J Tradit Chin Med 1997;17:53-4.
Last Review: 06-08-2015
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