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Nasal Congestion and Rhinorrhea


Marvin P. Fried

, MD, Montefiore Medical Center, The University Hospital of Albert Einstein College of Medicine

Reviewed/Revised May 2023
Topic Resources

Nasal congestion and rhinorrhea (runny nose) are extremely common problems that commonly occur together but occasionally occur alone.

Etiology of Nasal Congestion and Rhinorrhea

The most common causes (see table ) are


Patients who use topical decongestants for > 3 to 5 days often experience significant rebound congestion when the effects of the decongestants wear off, causing them to continue using the decongestant in a vicious circle of persistent, worsening congestion. This situation (rhinitis medicamentosa) may persist for some time and may be misinterpreted as a continuation of the original problem rather than a consequence of treatment.

Evaluation of Nasal Congestion and Rhinorrhea


History of present illness should determine the nature of the discharge (eg, watery, mucoid, purulent, bloody) and whether discharge is chronic or recurrent. If recurrent, any relation to patient location, season, and exposure to potential triggering allergens (numerous) should be determined. A unilateral, clear, watery discharge, particularly after head trauma, can indicate a cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) leak. CSF discharge can also occur spontaneously in women who are in their 40s and have obesity, secondary to idiopathic intracranial hypertension Idiopathic Intracranial Hypertension Idiopathic intracranial hypertension causes increased intracranial pressure without a mass lesion or hydrocephalus, probably by obstructing venous drainage; cerebrospinal fluid composition is... read more .

Review of systems should seek symptoms of possible causes, including fever and facial pain (sinusitis); watery, itchy eyes (allergies); and sore throat, malaise, fever, and cough (viral upper respiratory infection [URI]).

Past medical history should seek known allergies and existence of diabetes or immunocompromise. Drug (prescription, over-the-counter, illicit) history should include asking specifically about topical decongestant use.

Physical examination

Vital signs are reviewed for fever.

Examination focuses on the nose and area over the sinuses. The face is inspected for focal erythema over the frontal and maxillary sinuses; these areas are also palpated for tenderness. Nasal mucosa is inspected for color (eg, red or pale), swelling, color and nature of discharge, and, particularly in children, the presence of a foreign body.

Red flags

The following findings in patients with nasal congestion or rhinorrhea are of particular concern:

  • Unilateral discharge, particularly if purulent or bloody

  • Facial pain, tenderness, or both

Interpretation of findings


Testing is generally not indicated for acute nasal symptoms unless invasive sinusitis is suspected in a diabetic or immunocompromised patient; these patients usually require CT.

If a CSF leak is suspected, a sample of the discharge should be tested for the presence of beta-2 transferrin, which is highly specific for CSF.

Treatment of Nasal Congestion and Rhinorrhea

Specific conditions are treated. Topical or oral decongestants can relieve congestion. Topical decongestants include oxymetazoline, 2 sprays in each nostril once or twice a day for 3 days. Oral decongestants include pseudoephedrine 60 mg twice a day. Prolonged use of topical decongestants can cause rebound congestion, and prolonged use of oral decongestants can increase blood pressure and heart rate. Both should be avoided.

Viral rhinorrhea can be treated with first-generation oral antihistamines (eg, diphenhydramine 25 to 50 mg orally twice a day), which are recommended because of their anticholinergic properties unrelated to their H2-blocking properties.

Allergic congestion and rhinorrhea can be treated with antihistamines; in such cases, nonanticholinergic antihistamines (eg, fexofenadine 60 mg orally twice a day) as needed are used because they have fewer adverse effects. Nasal corticosteroids (eg, mometasone 2 sprays in each nostril daily) also help relieve symptoms.

Antihistamines and decongestants are not recommended for children < 6 years.

Geriatrics Essentials: Nasal Congestion and Rhinorrhea

Antihistamines, particularly first-generation antihistamines such as diphenhydramine, can have sedating and anticholinergic effects, and a decreased dosage should be used in older people. Similarly, sympathomimetics should be used with the lowest dosage that is clinically effective.

Key Points

  • Most nasal congestion and rhinorrhea are caused by URIs or allergies.

  • Consider a foreign body in children.

  • Also consider rebound congestion due to topical decongestant overuse.

Drugs Mentioned In This Article

Drug Name Select Trade
12 Hour Nasal , Afrin, Afrin Extra Moisturizing, Afrin Nasal Sinus, Afrin No Drip Severe Congestion, Dristan, Duration, Genasal , Mucinex Children's Stuffy Nose, Mucinex Full Force, Mucinex Moisture Smart, Mucinex Sinus-Max, Mucinex Sinus-Max Sinus & Allergy, NASAL Decongestant, Nasal Relief , Neo-Synephrine 12-Hour, Neo-Synephrine Severe Sinus Congestion, Nostrilla Fast Relief, Reliable-1 12 hour Decongestant, Rhinase D, RHOFADE, Sinex 12-Hour, Sudafed OM Sinus Cold Moisturizing, Sudafed OM Sinus Congestion Moisturizing, Upneeq, Vicks Qlearquil Decongestant, Vicks Sinex, Vicks Sinex Severe, Visine L.R., Zicam Extreme Congestion Relief, Zicam Intense Sinus
Contac Cold 12 Hour, Dimetapp Decongestant, Drixoral, ElixSure Cold, ElixSure Congestion, Entex, Genaphed , KidKare , Myfedrine, NASAL Decongestant, Nasofed, Nexafed, PediaCare Infants' Decongestant, Pseudo-Time, Silfedrine, Sudafed, Sudafed 12 Hour, Sudafed 24 Hour, Sudafed Children's Nasal Decongestant, Sudafed Congestion, Sudafed Sinus Congestion, Sudogest, Sudogest 12 Hour, Sudogest Children's , Tylenol Children's Simply Stuffy, Zephrex-D
Aid to Sleep, Alka-Seltzer Plus Allergy, Aller-G-Time , Altaryl, Banophen , Benadryl, Benadryl Allergy, Benadryl Allergy Children's , Benadryl Allergy Dye Free, Benadryl Allergy Kapgel, Benadryl Allergy Quick Dissolve, Benadryl Allergy Ultratab, Benadryl Children's Allergy, Benadryl Children's Allergy Fastmelt, Benadryl Children's Perfect Measure, Benadryl Itch Stopping, Ben-Tann , Children's Allergy, Compoz Nighttime Sleep Aid, Diphedryl , DIPHEN, Diphen AF , Diphenhist, DiphenMax , Dytan, ElixSure Allergy, Genahist , Geri-Dryl, Hydramine, Itch Relief , M-Dryl, Nighttime Sleep Aid, Nytol, PediaCare Children's Allergy, PediaCare Nighttime Cough, PediaClear Children's Cough, PHARBEDRYL, Q-Dryl, Quenalin , Siladryl Allergy, Silphen , Simply Sleep , Sleep Tabs, Sleepinal, Sominex, Sominex Maximum Strength, Theraflu Multi-Symptom Strip, Triaminic Allergy Thin Strip, Triaminic Cough and Runny Nose Strip, Tusstat, Unisom, Uni-Tann, Valu-Dryl , Vanamine PD, Vicks Qlearquil Nighttime Allergy Relief, Vicks ZzzQuil Nightime Sleep-Aid
Allegra, Allegra Allergy 12 Hour , Allegra Allergy 24 Hour, Allegra Children's Allergy , Allegra Children's Allergy ODT, Allegra Hives, Allegra ODT, Allergy Relief, Children's Allergy
Asmanex, Asmanex HFA, Elocon, Nasonex, Propel, Propel Contour, PROPEL Mini, PROPEL Mini with Straight Delivery System, SINUVA
NOTE: This is the Professional Version. CONSUMERS: View Consumer Version
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