A runny nose, known by medical professionals as rhinorrhea, can be both annoying and uncomfortable—but it happens for a reason. Typically, people get runny noses when their nasal passages are inflamed or irritated. The body causes the mucus to “run” so the potentially harmful germs leave the body.
A runny nose usually occurs in response to an irritant, most commonly a cold virus. But a runny nose can have a number of causes, ranging from underlying medical conditions like infections and allergies, to environmental irritants like smoke or the weather.
Fortunately, your runny nose won’t last forever. While you wait for the underlying cause to resolve, you can use over-the-counter (OTC) treatments to manage your runny nose. It’s also important to talk to a doctor if you suspect you might have a severe illness that’s causing your nose to run.
Why Do I Have A Runny Nose?
When your nose is runny, that means you have fluid—usually clear and watery, but sometimes, yellow, green, or even bloody—coming from your nasal passage. A runny nose, which can also come with nasal congestion, typically occurs because the nasal tissue is irritated or inflamed, which can happen for a number of reasons. A runny nose may be irritating, but it’s a sign that your body is working to get rid of the germs that could be causing irritation or inflammation.
Chronic runny nose
Some people experience a chronic runny nose that’s not related to an underlying infection or allergies, a condition called nonallergic rhinitis. It can cause people’s nose to run for weeks or months at a time, and often, it doesn’t come with other symptoms.
Others may have a condition called vasomotor rhinitis, caused by abnormal regulation of blood flow in the nose. Doctors think vasomotor rhinitis is triggered by environmental factors like cold or dry air or irritants like air pollution, strong odors, or smoke.
Runny nose on one side
Sometimes, people experience a runny nose on one side, through just one nostril. Rarely, this can be a sign of an anatomical problem, like a leak of cerebrospinal fluid. It could also be caused by a deviated nasal septum.
Runny Nose Symptoms
Of course, a runny nose is the most common symptom, but people with runny noses may also experience:
Common Causes of a Runny Nose
Broadly, a runny nose is caused by rhinitis, or inflammation of the nasal passages. The most common cause of a runny nose is a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract, known as the common cold. Other medical causes of a runny nose include:
- Seasonal or environmental allergies
- Other viral infections, like respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which is more common in children, or influenza
- Sinus infections
- Hormonal changes, such as pregnancy
- Nasal polyps
- Structural abnormalities in the nose or sinuses
- Decongestant nasal spray overuse
Environmental factors can also cause a runny nose, including:
- Nasal irritants, such as smoke exposure
- Cold weather
- Consumption of spicy food
- Some medications, such as ibuprofen, aspirin, and blood pressure medications
Treatments for Runny Nose
There’s no hard-and-fast rule for how to stop a runny nose. Runny nose treatment will depend on what’s causing it. There’s also no specific “runny nose” medicine. The key is to stop whatever is irritating your nose and causing it to run and treat the symptoms in the meantime. Here are some of the most common causes of a runny nose, along with their corresponding treatment options:
Treating a runny nose from the common cold
The common cold is caused by a virus, most commonly the rhinovirus. If you have a cold, you may experience the following symptoms along with a runny or congested nose:
- Body aches
- Post-nasal drip
Unfortunately, there’s no cure for the common cold. Doctors usually recommend patients with colds get lots of rest, drink plenty of fluids, and wait it out. Generally, a cold—and the runny nose that comes with it—will resolve on its own with time, but this can take two weeks or more.
Treating a runny nose from allergies
If your immune system is reacting to an allergen like pollen or animal dander, you may experience symptoms like:
- A runny nose
- A scratchy throat
- Itchy eyes
Typical treatments for allergies include:
- Antihistamines: Medications like diphenhydramine (Benadryl), loratadine (Claritin), or cetirizine (Zyrtec) reduce the production of histamine, an active chemical during an allergic reaction.
- Decongestants: Medications like pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) can help shrink swollen tissues in your nasal passages so they leak less fluid. These medications can increase your blood pressure.
- Decongestant nasal sprays: Oxymetazoline (Afrin) rapidly shrinks swollen nasal passages. However, these medications are only suitable for short periods of time. Long-term use can make your nose run even more.
- Steroid nasal sprays: Fluticasone propionate (Flonase) can reduce inflammation in the nose. It’s important to note that these medications contain steroids and long-term use can result in side effects including headaches, nose bleeds, and cataracts.
While it’s not always possible to steer clear of environmental allergens, staying away from things that irritate your nasal passages is the best way to treat a runny nose related to allergies.
Treating a runny nose from a sinus infection
A sinus infection, also called sinusitis, happens when fluid doesn’t leave the sinus cavities, allowing viruses or bacteria to develop. Most often, sinus infections are viral in nature, but they can also be caused by bacteria.
Sinus infections can feel a lot like colds along with:
If a doctor suspects you have a sinus infection, he or she may take a sample of your mucus to determine if it’s viral or bacterial. You may get a prescription for antibiotics if your sinusitis is bacterial. Usually, people start to feel better within a few days of taking antibiotics.
For a sinus infection caused by a virus, the best course of action is plenty of rest and fluids, as with a cold. It may also be helpful to treat your runny nose with an OTC decongestant or steroid nasal spray.
Treating other causes of a runny nose
If you have a runny nose but don’t think you have a sinus infection, cold, or allergies, it may be due to an irritant. If this is the case, try removing the irritant first. You can also try some of the common OTC medications used for allergies.
You may want to try home treatments for a runny nose, such as:
- Nasal irrigation: Products like a Neti pot or sinus rinse bottle may help to clear your sinuses without requiring medication.
- Hot herbal tea: Some teas, like chamomile and ginger, contain anti-inflammatory and antihistamine properties.
- A hot shower or steam: This is a great runny nose remedy if your runny nose is related to congestion.
- Essential oils: Eucalyptus, peppermint, tea tree (melaleuca), and thyme oils may have decongestant properties. You can use these by inhaling them directly or adding them into a diffuser or bath.
Preventing a Runny Nose
A runny nose can’t always be prevented, but with the right precautions, you can decrease the chances of developing one. To prevent a runny nose, it’s important to prevent potential irritants that could inflame your nasal passages. For example, if you have a known allergy, try to avoid exposure to that allergen so your nose doesn’t start to run. You can also take allergy medication preventatively before the exposure.
Preventing illnesses like the common cold is another way to prevent a runny nose. Doctors recommend practicing routine, thorough hand washing—especially before eating or touching your face. It’s also helpful to avoid contact with anyone who might be sick.
While a runny nose might be annoying, it’s generally not something to worry about. What’s important is to treat the underlying cause, which will also relieve the symptoms you’re experiencing.
Typically, if you work with a doctor to figure out what’s causing your runny nose (and treat it accordingly), you won’t experience complications.
If you suspect you have an infection, you should talk to a medical professional, who can help you determine if you need treatment. For example, a runny nose with any of the below symptoms coupled with a sore throat might indicate an infection:
- Fever: This is likely from a viral or bacterial infection, like the common cold, a sinus infection, or influenza.
- Sneezing: This is common with allergies and environmental irritants, but you may also sneeze with your runny nose if you have an infection like the common cold.
- Coughing: This could indicate a viral infection like a cold or the flu. Typically, influenza causes a dry cough, while the common cold causes a productive (mucusy) cough. Allergies can also cause coughing with a runny nose.
- Sore throat: Post-nasal drip, which occurs when mucus moves to the back of the throat, can cause a scratchy or dry throat. It usually resolves when the irritation of the nose resolves. Occasionally, a sore throat with a runny nose can be caused by an infection, like the flu.
When to See a Doctor
You should consult with a doctor if you’ve dealt with the underlying cause of your runny nose but it won’t stop running or it’s getting worse. You can also speak to your doctor if you have any of the above symptoms with your runny nose, which could indicate an infection.
How K Health Can Help
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K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.